Tourism has been severely limited since COVID-19 closed international borders, and it still has a long way to go on the road to recovery. The journey will not be without challenges, but there is room for hope.
Headwinds include the continued absence of international tourism and business travel. Many festivals and events, which would act as an incentive for domestic travel within Canada, have been cancelled. Tourism businesses have lost staff, some of whom have moved on from our sector permanently.
Still, with over half of Canadians partially vaccinated and the provinces announcing reopening roadmaps, tourism operators can start to plan for summer 2021 and beyond. The industry has shown a great deal of resolve, perseverance, and resiliency in the face of the greatest crisis tourism has ever faced. The focus has understandably been on finding the tricky balance between remaining financially solvent and keeping the business operational—three-quarters of businesses kept core staff employed even at a financial loss.
As the summer approaches, workforce issues will take centre stage. Although we know that recovery timelines will vary by region and industry, having enough staff will be a preeminent concern upon reopening. Every customer turned away because of a lack of staff to serve them is a lost opportunity.
To assess the state of business conditions and the workforce, in the late winter and early spring of 2021, Tourism HR Canada conducted two national surveys of tourism businesses. The national results are contained in the two COVID-19 Tourism Workforce and Business Impact Reports released today.
The first of these two surveys was conducted in January and February. Businesses were still dealing with the restrictions of the pandemic’s second wave. The full results of that survey, including information by industry group, region, and geographic location (urban/rural), are now available.
Download the COVID-19 Tourism Workforce Impact Wave 1 Detailed Report
The second survey gathered information from business operators in March and April, when, following a brief lifting of restrictions, more transmissible variants drove a third wave of the pandemic in almost all regions of Canada. National level data from that report is now available. Industry and regional level data will be available shortly.
Download the COVID-19 Tourism Workforce Impact Wave 2 National Report
During the winter, only 5.9% of tourism businesses could fully open without any limitations or restrictions on their operations. Most businesses were placed under tighter restrictions, and 62.5% reported having to release staff due to those restrictions.
Over half of tourism businesses took on debt to survive, and three-quarters have maintained their core staff—even at a financial loss—to keep the business operating. Among firms that have taken on debt, the majority are concerned that it will hamper their ability to recover.
Almost half of the businesses were using the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to subsidize wages. Importantly for the upcoming summer, many businesses stayed in touch with staff that they had been forced to release.
Besides the CEWS, businesses were accessing several other supports—though none was as popular as CEWS. In addition to federal support programs, 37.2% of businesses were also accessing support provided by the provincial/territorial government, municipal government, or other organizations. Despite the number of businesses accessing these supports, half reported that harnessing government supports was an area in which they required guidance. Concerningly, 43.1% of respondents to the first survey said they were not currently receiving the financial support they needed to remain viable.
Looking forward to summer, the greatest concerns tourism business owners have are another shutdown, travel restrictions on Canadians, and a lack of traveller confidence. Almost half of businesses fear that an inability to hire staff will negatively affect their business operations. Those concerned about staffing fear that workers will choose EI benefits over returning to work, that there are not enough workers in the region, or that they will face stiff competition for workers from other industries.
In terms of what they need this summer, businesses are very clear that they want to see straightforward communication on reopening timelines, clear communication on protocols, and marketing that encourages domestic travel.
The good news is that many of these needs are starting to be met. Provinces and territories are announcing reopening plans that indicate what conditions must be met for restrictions to be lifted, along with the protocols that will remain in place (such as mask wearing and social distancing). Marketing agencies are engaged in reminding Canadians of the importance of the tourism industry and encouraging them to frequent tourism businesses in their community, when it is safe to do so.
We, too, would like to take this opportunity to encourage all Canadians to engage in tourism activities when they are allowed, and when they feel safe doing so. Enjoy the patio of a local restaurant and visit a local museum when they reopen—if they aren’t already. Explore new destinations or return to favourite sights in your own province or territory.
The purpose of this report is to assess the state of workforce and business conditions in the tourism industry as we head towards summer. Our labour market research shows just how hard this crisis hit the tourism industry. It has been an incredibly tough year for business owners and tourism employees. We still have a long way to travel, but the journey has begun.