About five years ago Premier Gordon Campbell challenged the tourism industry in B.C. to double in size by 2015. Since then the Liberals have sent mixed messages to the tourism industry, particularly in the final run up to the biggest tourism marketing event in more than 20 years, the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The business-friendly Liberals have generally taken a progressive approach to tourism, B.C.'s largest industry in terms of employment, since their election in 2001. Tourism - which includes everything from the finest hotels and the highest cultural activities to the smallest cafes and monster truck pulls - is largely made up of numerous small- and medium-sized businesses. There are large, well-known corporate names, including Fairmont, Intrawest, Carnival Cruise Lines and Great Canadian Gaming, involved in tourism in B.C. but the industry is so diverse in size and scope that there are no dominant players like there are in the auto industry or banking. And small businesses are just as important to certain sectors of the tourism economy as large corporations are.
That being the case, the Liberals' pro-business approach has generally served tourism well over the past eight years. Taking steps to build a healthy overall provincial economy is arguably the best thing a provincial government can do for the tourism industry, since tourist spending is (almost by definition) discretionary, rather than essential. If people have more money they are more likely to vacation.
The Liberals have also invested heavily in infrastructure that supports tourism leading up to the 2010 Olympics. The Sea to Sky Highway upgrade is the most obvious example for those of us in Whistler. But projects like the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, the Canada Line and the expansion of 11 regional airports in the last six years all benefit tourism.
The Liberals have also invested in tourism training programs and the growing First Nations and cultural tourism sectors.
But as the federal government has shown with its Marquee Tourism funding program, it's relatively easy to announce funding for specific tourism-related projects and look like a hero. Who can argue against a couple million dollars for a music festival or capital funding for a cultural centre? No one is going to turn the money down and no one is going to argue that building the facility or festival or road is going to do anything but improve the likelihood of more people visiting. That's tourism.
But this facile approach has its limits. British Columbia's tourism policy, while better defined and more consistently supported than that of the Conservatives, has primarily focused on encouraging development of new resorts and new real estate. Persuading people to fill British Columbia's hotels and lodges and spend money in the cities and resorts was left to Tourism B.C. and smaller regional tourism organizations. And the Liberals provided Tourism B.C. with funding, doubling the organization's share of the hotel room tax this year to about $55 million, the lion's share of the organization's $65 million budget.