Tourism industry still waiting

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In 2004, during the heady pre-Olympic, pre-recession days, then-Premier Gordon Campbell challenged the province’s tourism industry to double in size — to $18 billion — by 2015.

Last fall the government of Premier Christy Clark updated the province’s 2007 Tourism Action Plan, producing a new five-year strategy designed to help the industry reach $18 billion by 2016. (According to the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., tourism generated $13.4 billion in revenue in 2010.)

Among the promises made by Premier Clark were that “British Columbia will become North America’s No. 1 ski destination.”

The tourism industry in B.C. has gone through a number of changes in recent years, including the sudden assimilation of the formerly independent Tourism BC into the Ministry of Tourism six months before the 2010 Olympics. And, of course, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the sputtering recovery of the last three years have hurt tourism everywhere.

Clark and the Liberals have been heavily committed to tourism, one of the main benefits of hosting the 2010 Olympics, we were told. But with tourism numbers stagnating, the Liberals reassessed the industry and its strategy last fall. Among the key points of the updated strategy:

• B.C.’s strategic location relative to Asia and the need for improved air service;

• the shift to shorter, less expensive vacations;

• a need to respond to potential future labour shortages.

The province then committed to removing barriers to industry growth. These promises include improving the timelines of Crown land-use decisions; enhancing the Small Business Venture Capital Program tax credit; promoting the expansion of passenger pre-clearance at air, marine and land borders; and working with air carriers to identify opportunities to develop and expand service.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of streamlining liquor laws.

However, the province’s efforts to grow tourism run up against the federal government’s apparent disinterest. In 2006 the Conservative government created a Federal Tourism Strategy Framework. That was updated to a Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan in 2008. It melded with the Conservatives’ Economic Action Plan of 2009 and 2010, which largely meant funding for tourism events, including Kokanee Crankworx and the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival in 2010.

Among the feds’ “priorities for immediate action” in 2008 were improving border crossings to ensure the efficient flow of tourists to and from Canada. Last month Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama announced the Beyond the Border Action Plan, which is expected to simplify and streamline the process of crossing the border while also providing greater security to both countries. Full details have yet to be announced.

The Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan also emphasized the need for transportation policies and programs that “take into consideration national, provincial/territorial, and regional tourism economic benefits.” This includes “the ability of tourists to travel to and within Canada.”

Attracting more flights, particularly from Pacific Rim countries, has been a priority of B.C. governments for some time, as evidenced by the International Open Skies Summit in Vancouver in September 2009. Last fall’s provincial tourism strategy reaffirmed improved air access to and within B.C. as a key priority.

But opening up more air routes is a federal responsibility, one that the Conservatives have yet to show much interest in.

True, the federal government is working on a number of trade agreements, including a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Canada-European Union trade agreement, bilateral negotiations with India, South Korea and other countries. But the Harper government seems to favour more complex, time-consuming, comprehensive trade deals rather than negotiating individual aspects of international relations, such as Open Skies.

Which leaves the tourism industry in B.C. waiting…

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