The first thing you notice about Canada’s Minister of Tourism Randy Boissonault, besides his vibrantly coloured, patterned button-up, is his unrelenting enthusiasm. Ottawa’s megaphone for a sector that contributed $38 billion to the national GDP last year, the minister is tasked with helping shift the narrative around Canada’s tourism landscape, after the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the industry.
“OK, enough focus on the pandemic; let’s focus on growth,” said Boissonault in a visit to Whistler last week.
Approximately 70 Tourism Whistler and Whistler Chamber of Commerce members met with Boissonault and Sea to Sky MP Patrick Weiler in the Whistler Conference Centre’s Rainbow Theatre last Wednesday, July 12, to discuss issues facing the local tourism sector as well as Canada 365, the Liberals’ sweeping federal tourism strategy first unveiled earlier this month.
“It was the most engaging townhall we’ve had across the country,” Boissonault said in a sitdown with Pique following the meeting, which was closed to media. “[I heard about] everything from labour to housing to micro-dips in bookings, which was really interesting.”
Canada’s ambitious new strategy aims to grow tourism’s contribution to the national GDP by 40 per cent in the next seven years, resulting in an estimated additional 85,000 direct jobs, while at the same time creating a more sustainable, regenerative tourism landscape.
“Canada, for too long, took a passive approach to tourism. The thought was, people are just going to come because we’re so great and we’re so nice here,” said Boissonault. “Then the rest of the world woke up to the fact that the visitor economy is found money. You bring people into your community or your province and it gets on your books as an export, and it supports local communities.”
Whistlerites concerned with overtourism and its impact on the character of an already rapidly changing community may bristle at the thought of growing the resort’s visitation, but Boissonault was quick to note the new national strategy places significant emphasis on attracting a certain type of guest that will respect the land, the local community, and, to put it bluntly, will pay a premium to be here.
“We’re going to be mindful about who we invite, and we want more high-value guests, so that they’re not overly bothered by paying what the sector needs so that people can actually make a living wage and have a long-term career here,” Boissonault said. “Tourism, for a lot of people, is a great career, and before the pandemic, we were starting to see some cracks in the labour system, because it was hard to make ends meet. So, we have to make sure that we’re positioning for this growth spurt that we want to see, this growth phase for Canada, with an action strategy that is intentional about growing tourism, that the workforce is there and that we can house them.”
For years now, Tourism Whistler has sought to strike a better balance in Whistler’s tourism landscape, driving visitors to midweek and other non-peak periods, while also incentivizing longer lengths of stay.
“It is growth when it comes to need periods,” said Barrett Fisher, Tourism Whistler’s president and CEO. “For Whistler, that’s bringing a destination guest who stays for five or seven or 10 nights, or that’s bringing a shoulder-season conference group or event, which is part of [the national] strategy. Our piece isn’t about mass volume and pedal to the metal in high-season months when we don’t need it. It’s really about finding that balanced strategy and working collectively in partnership.”
Asked how to grow tourism without sacrificing the character of the communities that drew visitors there in the first place, Boissonault said, while municipalities have an important role to play, it’s up to the various levels of government and industry stakeholders to work better together to address the wide-ranging issues facing the sector.
“This is why I like what has been built pre-pandemic, through the pandemic, and now … you have Destination Canada, which markets Canada, you have [Destination] BC, you have Tourism Whistler, you have the municipal council, you have the province, First Nations and the feds, and finally we’re all playing together in a way that wasn’t the case before,” he said.
Rebuilding the tourism workforce
Whistler is of course not the only tourism destination suffering from a years-long labour shortage that worsened exponentially in the pandemic. A key tenet of Canada 365 is rebuilding the tourism sector’s workforce, which, by the end of last year, had recovered to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, supporting roughly 1.9 million jobs across the country.
The national plan noted a suite of programs intended, in part, to create a more robust tourism workforce. Among those are investments of $197.7 million into Canada’s student work placement program, $123.2 million to boost Francophone immigration to Canada, and $100 million to support the implementation of a 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan. The Liberals have also committed to continue making improvements to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which resort businesses significantly rely on.
The minister also hinted that Whistler has a case to make for special consideration of its distinct labour needs when advocating to senior levels of government for temporary foreign workers, as the resort’s estimated three-per-cent unemployment rate gets lumped in with the Lower Mainland, which sat at 5.2 per cent in May of this year.
“I do think that we can make the case for Whistler—and this is why the data that we get from the Chamber [and] that we get from Tourism Whistler is so important, because I can’t move federal officials, and even my colleagues, on anecdotes,” Boissonault said. “I need the data.”
The data, as it were, has been hard to come by. For years, Weiler has pushed Statistics Canada to get Whistler-specific labour figures, and said the latest he heard, the agency was working to determine the appropriate borders of the new labour catchment area.
Along with shifting the narrative around tourism to Canada in general, federal officials are also hopeful to change prospective workers’ view on tourism “as an industry of last resort to an industry of first resort,” Boissonault said.
“When tourism is atomized to the local bar, the local restaurant, the local ski slope, then it’s easy to write it off as a summer job,” he added. “But when you take all of that in the aggregate and add it up, and realize that our sector is the No. 1 service export for the country, then [it becomes more attractive] … We’re on a journey so that moms and dads, aunts and uncles and young people themselves can see the future. They can see themselves making money. They can see themselves having a family. They can see themselves owning a home as a part of the tourism sector.”
National trails strategy
A key component of Canada 365 is a new National Trails Tourism Strategy aimed at further developing the country’s trail infrastructure and boosting visitation to these areas.
Ottawa has committed $55 million over five years for network maintenance and enhancement on the Trans Canada Trail, and a further $108 million for local community projects that promote recreational tourism, particularly through investments in trail inventory and infrastructure.
Boissonault looked to France, where he said an estimated 22 million people embark on a cycling holiday of some sort every year, as inspiration.
“Think of those numbers. That would be like 13 million Canadians deciding to spend a week or two on their bike for their holidays. Why? Because they get their backpacks, they get their bikes, they know that there are no barriers along the way. They know there are inns, there are places they can stop for food,” he said. “The entire trail system is beautiful and stunning and also has amenities along the way. We haven’t mastered that yet.”
Modernizing the travel experience
Canada 365 pledges to invest in tourism infrastructure and transportation to help modernize the travel experience and better connect visitors to far-flung destinations. Part of that effort is an emphasis on a “multi-modal transportation framework” and opening “efficient and affordable” air access to key markets.
“You want to make it easy and not sticky for people to get to where they want to [go], and multiple flights or spending three hours in a bus is less [desirable] than a direct flight,” Boissonault said.
Given the steep price of flights and airline worker shortages that have led to persistent delays and cancellations in airports across the country, it’s, at present, difficult to imagine how swaths of international visitors would choose remote Canadian destinations compared to, say, Europe, with its comparatively compact geography and robust, affordable transportation networks.
In Whistler and the Sea to Sky, there have been calls to the province for years from local leaders for a regional transit system that connects Mount Currie to the rest of the corridor and beyond.
“I don’t know if it’s cold comfort, but this conversation is taking place in provinces across the country, particularly with the demise of intra-regional transportation, like Greyhound and others,” Boissonault said. “What’s the answer to get people to and from? If it’s not trains, then it’s got to be bussing, and then that’s got to come up from the local communities.”
Asked if Ottawa’s dual goals of bringing in so-called “high-value” visitors from afar, with all the associated emissions they create, along with developing a more sustainable approach to tourism, were compatible, Boissonault said they are, “particularly if we take a regenerative approach.
“Sustainability is like the milestone to regenerative tourism. And we know that, and this is why we’re working so hard to find alternative and renewable jet fuel sources. It’s why the hydrogen economy is so important. I think there’s great work being done on biofuel additives into the airline sector,” he added. “The travelling public that we want to track to Canada are going to respect the land, they’re going to do their offsets, and they’re going to understand that when they come here, they’re going to do so in a responsible way.”
To read Canada’s national growth strategy in full, visit ised-isde.canada.ca