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Conservatives failing tourism

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While great weather and a boxcar load of festivals have made for a strong summer in Whistler, the corridor and the Lower Mainland, tourism business across the country is far from what it could or should be.

That's the strongly worded message in a discussion paper published by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce last month. "Restoring Canadian Tourism" is a stinging indictment of the federal government and its neglect of the tourism industry.

The report was sponsored by the Canadian Airports Council, the National Airlines Council of Canada, the Hotel Association of Canada, the Convention Centres of Canada and various private sector businesses in the tourism trade, including Rocky Mountaineer. But it was the Canadian Chamber of Commerce that came up with the findings and put its name on the report.

The starting point is the United Nations World Tourism Organization's list of the top 20 countries for international tourist arrivals over the past decade. Canada was ranked seventh in 2002, 15th in 2008 and 16th in 2012. The absolute number of international tourist arrivals in Canada has also declined, from 20.1 million in 2002 to 17.1 million in 2008 and 16.3 million in 2012. Canada's decline took place during a decade of expanding international tourism around the globe. While many new countries moved up the ranks Canada was one of only five countries to experience a drop in arrivals.

These numbers have been around for a while but they don't seem to have made an impact on the Canadian public, media or government. Perhaps the introduction to the chamber's report will bring some attention to them:

"Canada has failed to respond to changing realities. It has failed to respect the growing choices travellers have, and it has failed to fight for its future."

The decline of international visits to Canada is long, steep and according to the chamber, of our own making.

"It is easy to blame Canada's tourism challenges on factors that are beyond its control, like the rise of the Canadian dollar, the U.S. recession and post-9/11 policies. However, the reality is Canada has failed to respond to these challenges by addressing factors that are within its control, such as its layers of regulations, fees and taxes, its cumbersome visitor visa system and its lack of investment in its national marketing initiatives."

Despite this neglect, tourism remains an important industry for Canada. As the report states, tourism's contribution to GDP is worth more than agriculture, fisheries and forestry combined.

The chamber estimates the federal government collects nearly $10 billion in taxes annually from tourism. And it says tourism is the "largest service export in the country," worth $17.3 billion a year in export revenue. Yet tourism is the only "export" that is not exempt from GST.

The Conservative government's record on tourism speaks for itself:

• Canada is the only G8 country without a value-added-tax rebate. The Conservatives ended it on April 1, 2007, effectively adding 6 per cent (now 5 per cent) to the cost of a Canadian vacation;

• Mexicans have been required to obtain visas to visit Canada since 2009. Mexico, Brazil, India and China are four of Canada's fastest growing markets. Visitors from all four countries require visas;

• When the Conservatives first came to power in 2006, Canada was close to getting Approved Destination Status from China. But it wasn't until December 2009, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally turned his attention to China, that Approved Destination Status was granted;

• A decade ago, the Canadian Tourism Commission's budget was more than $100 million. In 2012 it was $72 million and for 2013-14 it's $57.8 million. Last year, to meet the ever-shrinking budget, the CTC abandoned the U.S. market entirely. The chamber says national marketing campaigns are critical. "A lack of investment in national-level marketing cannot be replaced by local/provincial or private marketing initiatives."

• The Conservatives have done precious little to increase or encourage air travel, particularly around the Pacific Rim.

Last week the Conservatives introduced further "improvements" to the temporary foreign worker program that many ski resorts, including Whistler, rely on for filling some of their seasonal staff positions. Jason Kenney, the minister of Employment and Social Development, told CBC Vancouver the temporary foreign worker program wasn't being abused by employers, but they were making it more onerous and more expensive for employers to hire foreign workers anyway.

In a press release announcing changes to the program, Kenney spewed the usual Conservative boilerplate: "Our government's No. 1 priority remains jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity."

But the Conservatives' fix for the non-problem of foreign workers was to increase costs to businesses. This sort of Orwellian gap between rhetoric and reality has been demonstrated over and over again. Take airports, for example.

The chamber cites a World Economic Forum study that found Canada ranked first for airport infrastructure but 124th (out of 140 countries) for overall price competitiveness, and 136th for ticket taxes and airport charges. "An outdated aviation policy that creates competitive barriers and an underfunded marketing strategy are preventing us from converting potential tourists to consumers," the chamber report states.

To be clear, not all the taxes and charges levied at airports end up in federal coffers. But the federal government sets the parameters for how airports conduct their business, leasing land to airport authorities rather than selling it to them and regulating airport operations, including negotiating (or not) air access agreements with foreign nations.

Regardless of who collects the charges and fees, they have become so high that many people now choose to fly in and out of U.S. airports rather than Canadian airports. The chamber estimates "...this cross-border leakage represents a loss of approximately 9,000 well-paying jobs in Canada, employment income loss of $511 million and tax revenue loss of $190 million."

You would think that would get the attention of a government whose No. 1 priority is jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity.

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