Tourism Employment Gains Driven by Two Provinces

This February, employment in both tourism and the broader economy increased. This was the first monthly increase in tourism employment since August 2020 and the first increase in seasonally unadjusted employment across all segments of the Canadian economy since October.

The seasonally adjusted data reports employment in Canada increasing by 259,000, while unadjusted employment, which is used to compare the broader economy to the tourism sector, increased by 309,300.

Tourism employment increased by 88,900 in February with the addition of 50,400 part-time workers and 38,500 full-time workers, an overall increase in employment of 6.2% compared to January. Despite the increase, tourism employment remained lower than it was in December.

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

February’s employment increase was largely driven by the addition of 68,100 employed workers in Ontario and 26,800 employed workers in Alberta, two of the provinces that reduced COVID-19 restrictions in February.

Newfoundland and Labrador, however, re-introduced lockdowns, and saw tourism employment plummet by 5,300 or 28.6%.


  • Tourism employment increased by 88,900 in February.
  • Despite monthly gains, tourism had half a million fewer employed workers than in February 2020.
  • The national gain in employment was largely driven by the lifting of restrictions in certain provinces.
  • Tourism employment in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador decreased 28.6% due to an outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown.
  • At 15.5%, tourism’s unemployment rate was above Canada’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.6%.
  • While employed tourism workers increased by 88,900, the number of unemployed tourism workers only decreased by 46,400. This likely indicates that many workers who lost employment in the fall and winter waited to be recalled, rather than seeking new jobs.
  • The number of total actual hours worked has not recovered to the same extent that employment has, indicating that while some employees are returning to work, they are working fewer hours than they would have been pre-pandemic.

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 February, employment across the entire Canadian economy increased by 309,300. Tourism employment made up 28.7% of the monthly employment gain, adding 88,900 employed workers between January and February.

From January to February, employment increased in all industry groups, although the transportation industry lost some part-time emploment. Employment in the accommodation industry increased by 3,300 due to a gain of 4,600 part-time jobs and a loss of 1,400 full-time jobs.

In February 2021, tourism employed 1,524,200 workers, 25% fewer than in February 2020, the last month before the COVID-19 pandemic caused tourism employment to plummet.

The greatest increase in employment occurred in part-time work within the food and beverage services industry group. Part-time work was also responsible for all employment gains in the accommodation industry, as full-time employment decreased by 1,400. Full-time employment drove gains in the transportation and recreation and entertainment industry groups.

Because the industry groups that make up tourism are different sizes, looking at the monthly change in employment as a percentage increase or decrease 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. Due to February’s employment gains, tourism employment is now down 24.7% since February 2020, a slight improvement from January when employment was down almost 30%.

The accommodation and recreation and entertainment industry groups have seen the greatest percentages of loss of employment since the start of the pandemic, down 40.4% and 29.1%, respectively. While other industries have seen smaller employment decreases, some of that employment may be sustained by the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy. For example, although employment in travel services is “only” down 10.6% as of February 2021, other data shows that the greatest decrease in job postings has been for travel counsellors. Industry group data can also gloss over vast differences at the industry group level. Overall employment levels in the transportation industry group are down 16.5% since February, but air transportation is down 52.7%.

On a year-over-year basis, seasonally unadjusted employment across all Canadian industries was down 3.2% compared to February 2020. In comparison, tourism employment was down 24.7% from the same month a year ago.

Provincial Tourism Employment

Provincially, there was a mix of employment gains and losses in February. The national gain in tourism employment was largely caused by large gains in Ontario (68,100) and Alberta (26,800). In Nova Scotia, employment increased by 6,000, which as a percentage of the previous month’s employment levels was the second largest gain of any province (17.4%). These three provinces all saw a lifting of restrictions in early to mid February.

While tourism employment in these provinces benefitted from the lifting of restrictions, tourism employment plummeted in Newfoundland and Labrador as an outbreak of COVID-19 in early February sent the province into lockdown. As a result, tourism employment fell by 5,300—a decrease of 28.6% compared to January.

Other provinces had a mix of gains and losses ranging from a loss of 6.5% in Prince Edward Island to a gain of 6.6% in Saskatchewan.

In January, tourism employment in New Brunswick moved higher than it had been in January 2020. However, this appears to have been an anomaly. As of February, all provinces once again have tourism employment levels that are well below what would normally be expected for this time of year. On a percentage basis, the greatest employment losses were in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and Manitoba. The impact of the lockdown in Newfoundland and Labrador can clearly be seen. In December, year-over-year tourism employment levels in that province were 11.9%—one of the better performing provinces, relatively speaking. Just two months later, year-over-year employment levels were almost half of normal levels.

Tourism Unemployment Rate

In February 2021, the unemployment rate in the tourism sector was at 15.5%, which is 9.7 percentage points higher than the rate reported in February 2020, but lower than the previous month (January 2021), when the unemployment rate stood at 18.6%.

At 15.5%, tourism’s unemployment rate was above Canada’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.6%.

All tourism industry groups have reported higher unemployment rates than the same month last year.

Unemployment Rate
Tourism Industry Group[1]

February 2020

January 2021

February 2021

Tourism 5.8% 18.6% 15.5%
Accommodations 10.1% 29.9% 26.4%
Food & Beverage Services 5.8% 18.1% 13.8%
Recreation & Entertainment 7.5% 22.4% 20.1%
Transportation 2.5% 10.6% 10.6%
Travel Services N/A 17.4% 12.2%

On a provincial basis, tourism unemployment rates ranged from 6.8% in Saskatchewan to 23.1% in Prince Edward Island.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates for tourism in each province, with the exception of Saskatchewan, were above the rates reported for the provincial economy.

Average Tourism Employment Change

Tourism employment generally climbs slightly between January and February, 0.8% on average since 2001. This year’s 6.2% employment increase was driven by the lifting of COVID-related restrictions and stay-at-home orders. It also follows several months of employment declines exceeding the monthly averages seen since 2001.

Since the late summer, employment levels in tourism have largely decoupled from customer demand. Employment climbs and falls in reaction to public health restrictions. Should there be a third wave of the virus and reimplementation of restrictions—as has already happened in some regions of Ontario—employment will drop again. It will only be once a sustained lifting of restrictions begins that we will be able to see how much employment demand can be supported in the post-COVID era.

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%

Following five months in which the tourism labour force declined, the size of the tourism labour force increased 2.4% between January and February. The labour force is the combined number of employed tourism workers and former tourism workers who are actively seeking employment.

While employed tourism workers increased by 88,900, the number of unemployed tourism workers only decreased by 46,400. This likely indicates that many workers who lost employment in the fall and winter, waited to be recalled, rather than seek new jobs.

Where to From Here?

Tourism’s employment increases were largely due to a lifting of restrictions in certain provinces this February. Tourism employment in general is rising or falling in response to health restrictions, not to any increase or decrease in customer demand. At this time, the possibility of a third wave and further restrictions remains a possibility. This has already occurred in some regions.

That said, as more Canadians are vaccinated, there will come a time at which a sustained reduction in COVID-19 transmission will occur and with it an ongoing and sustained loosening of restrictions. Although some limitations will remain until all Canadians have been vaccinated, once a sustained reopening takes hold, employment levels should start to once again react to demand for tourism goods and services, rather than health restrictions.

[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.