Three news reports this week provided a measure of the problems facing the Canadian tourism industry, the industry that is the foundation for everything that happens in Whistler.
The first was a Globe and Mail story about the United States' new $200 million Discover America ad campaign (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/us-tourism-campaign-puts-canada-on-back-foot/article4299630/). Approximately 10 per cent of the campaign's budget is expected to be spent enticing Canadians south. As the Globe and Mail's Barrie McKenna reported, "The new U.S. ads portray a country that looks remarkably like this one, at a time when Canada is spending significantly less promoting itself."
How much less? In March the Canadian Tourism Commission's budget was slashed from $72 million in 2012 to $58.5 million for 2013. A decade ago the CTC budget was over $100 million annually.
"It's frightening to our industry," David Goldstein, president and chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said of the U.S. campaign.
The list of challenges the tourism industry has faced in the last decade is long and well known: 9/11, SARS, H1N1, increased security at borders, a dollar roughly at par, poor economies and a global banking crisis, among other things.
Still, tourism globally has grown in recent years. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated international tourism arrivals totaled 939 million in 2010, 980 million last year and expects them to top 1 billion in 2012. However, the context for these large, global numbers is that emerging nations are grabbing larger slices of the tourism pie, at the expense of "mature" destinations. The exception being the U.S., which continues to be the world's second most popular destination for foreign tourists, behind only France.
The bottom line is that it's getting more competitive, and the U.S. is ramping up its marketing efforts while Canada is cutting budgets.
One of the solutions being considered is to add another fee on all inbound foreign air travelers. A $15 charge would generate approximately $126 million per year and help finance Canadian tourism promotion. But another flying fee would exacerbate a problem identified in a Vancouver Sun story this week: many people are already choosing to fly in and out of U.S. airports to avoid the fees and taxes added on at Canadian airports (http://www.vancouversun.com/travel/Millions+Canadians+flying+airports/6798717/story.html).
A March report prepared by the Canadian Airports Council found that Canada is losing $1 billion a year in air travel just from Canadians who choose to travel through U.S. airports, according to the Sun. Meanwhile, a Senate committee report on airports concludes that "Government taxes and fees associated with air travel, starting with ground rents, need to be reduced to help make air travel in Canada more affordable and more competitive."
Senator Dennis Dawson said the committee determined that the federal government should transfer ownership of airports to the airport authorities, which would save them the cost of rent. The Vancouver Airport Authority reportedly pays Ottawa $34 million per year in rent.
But while Ottawa is happy to remain landlord it's less interested in investing in airport facilities. Improvements at Canadian airports are generally paid for by passengers, through airport improvement fees. In the U.S., Washington often pays for airport improvements.
The third tourism-related story this week came from Mexico, site of the "T20" Tourism Ministers' meeting. Tourism ministers and members of the World Travel and Tourism Council, which held its summit in conjunction with the T20 meetings, called for the easing of visa regulations to strengthen international tourism. And helping tourism, they pointed out, helps the global economy.
The point is a key one for Canada, which three years ago imposed a visa requirement on Mexican travellers. The move was intended to reduce refugee claims from Mexico. While it may have accomplished that it also reduced the number of Mexican tourists visiting Canada, by 36 per cent in 2009 and 28 per cent in 2010.
Countries have a right and a responsibility to maintain security and prevent bogus refugee claims. But a visa requirement is a driftnet solution to a Paedocypris problem.
As an industry, tourism is as disparate as Hilton Hotels and Zog's Dogs; Air Canada and Canadian Snowmobile. This is both its strength and its weakness. But what happens at the top end of the industry affects all.
The Canadian Tourism Commission isn't the only organization working on tourism promotion, of course. Provincial ministries of tourism and regional tourism organizations, like Tourism Whistler, are also part of the equation. But when the tourism organization responsible for promoting Canada loses funding the repercussions are felt at the provincial and regional levels.
As importantly, it sends a message about where the federal government's priorities lie. The Conservatives can point to their Economic Action Plan as support for the tourism industry, but one-time grants to festivals and events is not a tourism policy.
What has become policy is the elimination of the GST visitor rebate program and imposition of travel visas on countries previously exempt. Millions of dollars have been spent "improving" border crossings, which means they are now more secure; how much more efficient they are is open to debate. Meanwhile, there is no progress on Open Skies agreements with most Asian countries.
Three stories this week illustrated how tourism just isn't a priority for the federal government. What's as disheartening is that no one is standing up publically and calling them on it.