One Year In: Tourism Employment Down Nearly Half a Million Jobs

In March, seasonally unadjusted tourism employment increased by 50,800. March was the second month in which tourism employment increased, following five months of decreasing employment from September to January. Despite the increase, Canada’s tourism sector employed 450,200 fewer people than it had in February 2020.

The seasonally adjusted data from the labour force survey shows that employment in Canada increased by 303,000. In contrast, unadjusted labour force data shows a slightly smaller employment increase of 249,200. As tourism sector employment data is unadjusted for seasonality, the 249,200 number is used to compare tourism employment growth to the broader economy.

Tourism employment increased in March, with the addition of 45,400 part-time workers and 5,300 full-time workers, an overall increase in employment of 3.3% compared to February. In February and March combined, tourism employment increased by 139,700. The lifting of public health restrictions largely drove this increase. The third wave of COVID-19 that emerged in mid to late March resulted in another round of restrictions. Employment will likely drop once more in April. To what degree remains to be seen.

Data is from the week of March 14 to 20, 2021.

While Ontario and Alberta largely drove February’s employment increase, March’s employment increases were more equitably distributed across provinces. Notably, in Newfoundland and Labrador, tourism employment increased by 2,400, up 18.2%, following a drop in employment of 5,300 in February.

Highlights:

  • Seasonally unadjusted tourism employment increased by 50,800 in March.
  • March 2021 saw tourism employ 1,575,000 workers. It was in March of 2020 that tourism employment first started to decline in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On a year-over-year basis, tourism employment is down slightly, -0.2% compared to March 2020. However, compared to March 2019, tourism was down 20.7%, employing 410,700 fewer workers.
  • Over the two months of February and March, tourism employment increased by 139,700.
  • As of March, Canada’s tourism sector employed 450,200 fewer people than it had in February 2020. Across all industries, there were 349,100 fewer people employed this March than there were in February 2020.

Please note: To allow comparisons with tourism sector data, which sees significant employment fluctuations over the year, we use seasonally unadjusted data for both tourism employment and overall employment.

Tourism Employment Rate

In March, employment across the entire Canadian economy increased by 249,200. The tourism sector made up 20.4% of the monthly employment gain, adding 50,800 employed workers. March was the second month of employment gains in tourism, following an increase of 88,900 in February.

Employment increased in four of the five tourism industry groups. The transportation industry saw an employment loss of 12,400 workers. The largest increases in employment occurred in the recreation and entertainment (28,800) and accommodations (18,100) industry groups.

In March of 2021, tourism employed 1,575,000 workers. In March of 2020, tourism employment first started to decline in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking year-over-year, tourism employment was down slightly, -0.2% compared to March 2020. However, compared to March 2019, tourism was down 20.7%, employing 410,700 fewer workers.

The most significant increase in employment occurred in part-time work within the food and beverage services industry group (26,700). However, a loss of full-time work within the same industry group (-15,000) offset that gain. Part-time work was also responsible for the majority of employment gains in the recreation and entertainment industry. The loss of part-time work in the transportation industry drove overall employment losses. Full-time employment in that industry actually increased by 5,700. The accommodations industry saw gains in both full-time and part-time work.

Because the industry groups that make up tourism are different sizes, looking at the monthly change in employment as a percentage change relative to the previous month provides a more equitable picture of how each industry is recovering. It also helps illustrate the size of the employment increase or decrease relative to total employment within a given industry group. Even following two months of employment gains, tourism employment is down 22.2% compared to February 2020, the last month before pandemic-related employment losses began.

On a percentage basis, the accommodations industry gained the most employment in March, increasing 18.3% compared to February. But despite that increase, employment in accommodations is still down 29.5% compared to February 2020, the greatest percentage decrease in employment of all tourism industry groups.

Other industry groups saw smaller percentage increases in employment this March. The recreation and entertainment industry increased employment by 8.6%, and employment in the food and beverage services industry grew 1.6%. However, employment in transportation decreased 4.0%. In all these industry groups, employment is down 20% or more compared to February 2020.

Employment in the travel services industry grew by 4,600 from February to March, increasing 8.6%. According to the data, employment in that industry is just 2.8% lower than in February 2020. Employment numbers for the travel services industry require further examination as they do not align with data on economic activity within the industry. Travel services is the smallest tourism industry group in terms of employment. As the Labour Force Survey is a sample of workers, travel services employment data does show more monthly variability than the other industry groups. While one month of data may be an outlier, multiple months of data show employment to be higher than expected. In travel services, gross domestic product (GDP) in January 2021 was only 63.2% of what it was in January 2020. This decrease in GDP is comparable to the food and beverage services industry, yet employment remains higher in travel services. While the total number of active tourism businesses had decreased by 8.3% between February 2020 and December 2020, the number of active travel service businesses fell 30.3%. Finally, job posting data shows postings for travel counsellors, an occupation which makes up about half of all jobs in the travel services industry, down 72% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Employment numbers may be somewhat held up by workers being furloughed and receiving the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy. These workers are considered employed, but that would not account for the entire discrepancy. Data on hours worked by industry group, which will be available in next month’s employment update, may help explain the discrepancy between the economic and employment data.

We are at a point where year-over-year employment levels are comparing the current employment data to employment in the first months of the pandemic. In the first two months of the pandemic, almost 900,000 tourism workers lost their jobs. When comparing 2021 to 2020, employment may have increased on a year-over-year basis, while still remaining well below pre-COVID levels.

Going forward, we will compare monthly employment to 2020, to assess how employment compares to the first year of the pandemic. Additionally, we will compare monthly employment to 2019 to assess the recovery relative to the pre-pandemic period. It should be noted that tourism employment losses in March and April 2020 were massive and any comparison of 2021 and 2020 numbers should take that into account.

Tourism employment is just slightly below where it was last year, but over 20% lower than in March 2019. Employment in the accommodations industry group has dropped the furthest compared to both 2020 and 2019.

Provincial Tourism Employment

In most provinces, tourism employment increased in March. Only Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island lost a significant percentage of employment, while employment in Alberta fell back slightly following a strong gain in February. Tourism employment in Newfoundland and Labrador increased by 18.2%, adding 2,400 workers to its tourism sector. Employment gains also occurred in British Columbia (16,600), Ontario (15,000), and Quebec (14,000).

Compared to 2019, tourism employment is well below pre-COVID levels for the month of March, ranging from -8.5% in New Brunswick to -37.8% in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some provinces are showing higher employment levels than at this time last year, but due to the uncertainty and labour force volatility that existed in March and April of 2020, year-over-year data should be interpreted with caution.

Tourism Unemployment Rate

In March 2021, the unemployment rate in the tourism sector was at 13.0%, which is 3.0 percentage points lower than the rate reported in March 2020, and lower than the previous month (February 2021) when the unemployment rate stood at 15.5%.

At 13.0%, tourism’s unemployment rate was above Canada’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.1%.

With the exception of transportation and travel services, all tourism industry groups reported lower unemployment rates than the same month last year.

Unemployment Rate
Tourism Industry Group[1]

March 2020

February 2021

March 2021

Tourism 16.0% 15.5% 13.0%
Accommodations 20.1% 26.4% 14.0%
Food & Beverage Services 18.6% 13.8% 14.0%
Recreation & Entertainment 18.8% 20.1% 15.3%
Transportation 4.7% 10.6% 7.5%
Travel Services 8.5% 12.2% 8.8%

On a provincial basis, tourism unemployment rates ranged from 8.2% in Saskatchewan to 20.0% in Prince Edward Island.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates for tourism in each province were above the rates reported for the provincial economy.

Average Tourism Employment Change

Although the specific month varies by year, between February and April tourism employment reaches its lowest annual point. Following a January employment decline after the holiday season, tourism employment grows minimally until significant growth takes place in May, when the sector ramps up for summer. The past year has been anything but standard.

Tourism employment trends have deviated significantly from their usual seasonal trends. February and March were no exceptions. The employment growth rates were driven by the lessening of public health restrictions that allowed businesses to reopen and rehire. Unfortunately, in much of the country this was short-lived and new restrictions foretell further employment declines that could last into late May.

Figure 10: Average Monthly Employment Change in Tourism (2001-2019 vs. 2020/21)

Average Monthly Employment Change 2001 to 2019 Monthly Employment Change 2020/21
August -0.6% 3.2%
September -5.6% 0.2%
October -0.8% -4.1%
November -1.8% -2.1%
December 0.2% -3.5%
January -1.0% -8.6%
February 0.8% 6.2%
March 0.2% 3.3%

The Tourism Labour Force

The tourism labour force grew slightly in March, only increasing by 0.3%. The labour force is the combined number of employed tourism workers and former tourism workers actively seeking employment. While employed tourism workers increased by 50,800, the number of unemployed tourism workers decreased by almost the same amount (-46,100), leading to little change in the overall size of the tourism labour force.

The total labour force (all industries) has only grown by 96,400 since February 2020[2]. This suggests that either there has been little growth in new entrants to the labour market, or those new entrants are being offset by people who lose employment and are not seeking new work—hence not being included in the active labour force.

Employment by Sector

As of March, Canada’s tourism sector employed 450,200 fewer people than it had in February 2020. Across all sectors, there were 349,100 fewer people employed this March than there were in February 2020. Employment is higher than it was pre-COVID in eight sectors of the economy.

It is difficult to tell if the increase in employment in those eight sectors is driven by former tourism workers, former workers from non-tourism sectors where employment remains depressed, or new entrants to the labour market. Former tourism workers are likely migrating to other industries, but we do not know precisely how many.

Where to From Here?

Tourism’s employment increases in February and March were a response to the lifting of health restrictions in several provinces. The emergence of a deadly third wave of the virus will temporarily undercut these gains. Although some businesses will try to retain employees where at all possible as they prepare for summer, tourism employment will drop once more come April.

That said, not all provinces are being affected by the third wave and the increasing percentage of Canadians who have received at least one dose of vaccine, ranging from 17.9% to 26.2% depending on the province in question—and higher in the territories—does bring hope that as the third wave recedes, a sustained lifting of health restrictions can occur. Quickly restaffing in preparation for the summer will be a key priority for businesses.

For more on the impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s tourism workforce, please visit our Employment Tracker.


[1] As defined by the Canadian Tourism Satellite Account. The NAICS industries included in the tourism sector are those that would cease to exist or operate at a significantly reduced level of activity as a direct result of an absence of tourism.
[2] Statistics Canada, Table 14-10-0017-01  Labour force characteristics by sex and detailed age group, monthly, unadjusted for seasonality (x 1,000)