In the first page of his speech introducing the provincial budget last week Finance Minister Colin Hansen referred to the "incredible success so far of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which many are hailing as a turning point in B.C.'s history."
Hansen referred again to the Olympics and Paralympics in the conclusion of his budget speech, specifically "building off the momentum" of the Games. He talked about investments in highways, ports and infrastructure. He talked about reducing the cost of doing business in B.C., about treaties with First Nations, about expanding trade and partnerships. He referred to the forest industry, the oil and gas sector, the importance of the harmonized sales tax.
But nowhere did the minister mention tourism.
A search this week of the Ministry Service Plans, which should provide details about how the budget impacts specific ministries, proved no more helpful. Clicking on the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts downloaded a .pdf of a blank page.
"What's notable about this budget is what's missing," Jim Storie, chair of the board of the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C., told the Victoria Times Colonist . "They talk about the whole idea of being able to capitalize on the success of the Olympics, and the one thing not mentioned in (the budget) is tourism, there's no new money."
Most British Columbians can appreciate the difficult parameters that framed this budget. The priority is rebuilding the economy as the province works its way out of the recession. Health care spending was increased and now accounts for about 43 per cent of the budget, and it still isn't enough. Reducing the provincial deficit is important. And a lot of provincial money went toward the Olympics in the last seven years to ensure the Games were a success.
However, the province is sending mixed messages as far as tourism is concerned. It was Premier Gordon Campbell who challenged the industry to double in size by 2015. The Olympics and Paralympics were supposed to be a springboard for that effort - and given the generally positive reviews of the Olympics, they probably will be.
But are we making the most of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage the success of the Games?
It's not just the lack of budget details. The introduction of the harmonized sales tax, the HST, on July 1 is going to increase the cost of vacations in British Columbia. For most businesses the HST will be a positive thing, simplifying tax issues. But for consumers the HST means the price of restaurant meals, lift tickets, ski lessons, tours, airline tickets and other services becomes more expensive.
The introduction of the HST and the province's surprise decision last year to eliminate Tourism B.C. as a Crown corporation and bring it within the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts has also complicated tourism funding. The hotel room tax funded Tourism B.C. when it was a Crown corporation. It also helped fund regional tourism marketing organizations such as Tourism Whistler. With the introduction of the HST the hotel room tax will be eliminated. The province has said it will maintain funding for organizations like Tourism Whistler and Tourism Vancouver, but exactly how the new funding model will work is still not clear.
The Council of Tourism Associations is still not impressed by the decision to eliminate the previously independent Tourism B.C. Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, announced in November a 13-member Council on Tourism to advise the ministry on how to market and expand the industry. The council, which includes Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher and Whistler Blackcomb President and COO Dave Brownlie, was rejected by COTA. "Such a committee or council will not help or advance tourism issues in B.C. and will more likely conflict with COTA's existing mandate to advocate on behalf of industry," a motion passed by the COTA board stated.
Tourism was expected to be one of the biggest winners of the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics - and it may well be. But you have to wonder if the opportunity the Games presented is being fully leveraged. The provincial and federal governments deserve credit for the efforts they made in the lead-up to 2010, including $40 million the federal government poured into the Canadian Tourism Commission over two years to market Canada through the Games. But both governments have also undermined those efforts. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government slapped visa requirements on Mexican and Czech tourists last year and eliminated the GST rebate for foreign tourists a couple of years ago. The HST - which the federal government has avoided any flack for - has added to the uncertainty within the tourism industry in B.C.
And now neither the provincial nor the federal budget suggests tourism will be "building off the momentum" presented by the Games.