Opinion » Editorial

Ottawa must pay more attention to tourism



It hasn't made headlines the way Idle No More or the start of the NHL season have, but slowly, quietly things are happening in the world of tourism that may increase the industry's profile and business in general.

Among the changes was the November announcement by the provincial government that it was re-creating an industry-led Crown corporation to market the province, Destination BC. The announcement has been panned by some and it comes three years after the province suddenly scrapped its successful predecessor, Tourism BC. Still, the concept is supported by most people in the tourism business because it is seen as a more efficient, agile body for marketing the province than leaving the task to bureaucrats within the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Arts.

Among those who support the concept of a Crown corporation marketing in the province is NDP tourism critic Spencer Chandra Herbert. He was in Whistler this week for a Canada West Ski Areas Association meeting and to touch base with key Whistler people.

The Vancouver-West End MLA is also supportive of the RMI funding model. This is a good sign for Whistler, which has a five-year commitment to RMI funding from the Liberal government but no guarantees should the NDP form the next provincial government.

Chandra Herbert, who prefers Blackcomb to Whistler, said the NDP would be outlining its ideas for tourism in the next couple of months as campaigning for the May election gets underway.

Meanwhile, the board of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce has followed the lead of Whistler council and voiced its opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. It has done so in the belief that the pipeline and the oil tankers that would be at the receiving end of the pipeline pose a threat to the environment, and Whistler's "...reputation as a tourist destination is dependent on British Columbia's pristine environment..."

"We believe it is imperative that the importance of tourism to the province is acknowledged..." Chamber President Fiona Famulak said in a release.

That was also the message presented by Tourism Whistler President and CEO Barrett Fisher and others from the B.C. tourism industry during a meeting last week with MP John Weston and representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the federal Tourism Ministry, the International Trade Ministry and Senator Nancy Greene Raine. The specific issues they discussed are not new: improving air access, visas, PST/GST rebates for tourists and entry into Canada for people with minor criminal records.

The disparate collective of businesses that are the tourism industry and the disparate collective of bureaucracies that impact the industry tends to mean there's no one who's primary job is to look out for tourism. It's not like the auto industry or oil industry where there are a few big players and everyone knows who they are.

Grouse Mountain's Stuart McLaughlin summed it up when asked if similar meetings were taking place in other provinces. "We don't know what is going on in the rest of Canada. There's a cohesiveness here in the tourism industry that has developed into something stronger over the last two or three years, and there are a lot of people working in partnership to advance issues that are important to our industry."

So, good for MP Weston to facilitate the meeting, to recognize the nature of the tourism industry, the political environment it's working in and its significance. But you have to wonder why this is happening now, three years after the 2010 Olympics.

Part of the answer may be found in looking at the budget of the Canadian Tourism Commission, an indication of where tourism stands among the federal government's priorities. As Business in Vancouver reported earlier this month, the Conservatives have repeatedly cut the Canadian Tourism Commission's budget, from $105.9 million in 2009 to $75.8 million in 2012 and $62 million in 2013. As a result, the CTC has withdrawn from marketing Canada in the U.S. and reduced its international presence.

"The biggest impact will be less return for the Canadian economy because there will be less investment (abroad promoting tourism)," CTC CEO Michele McKenzie told Business in Vancouver.

Nationally, tourism is estimated to be worth $79 billion. That's a significant industry, one the Conservatives claim they have supported with funding for festivals and events through their Economic Action Plan.

But just as Whistler convinced Victoria that RMI funding could be more effective if multi-year commitments were made, the tourism industry is trying to convince Ottawa that the CTC could be more effective if its budget wasn't left to the year-to-year whims of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. The industry is pushing for one of two options, according to BIV: a percentage of the approximately $460 million that foreign visitors annually spend on the goods and services tax or a levy on all foreign visitors who arrive by plane.

What comes of the proposal for funding the CTC, or the meeting Weston facilitated, remains to be seen. But the federal government should be paying more attention to tourism.

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