Olympic ‘afterglow’ needs nurturing

A recent release from Tourism Vancouver pertaining to the Olympics stated: "We are here today because we planned to be here."

But where tourism will be after the Olympics is an interesting question. The plans of some were thrown into disarray last year when Tourism B.C. went from a Crown corporation to a branch of the provincial tourism ministry. They were further muddied with the announcement that British Columbia will switch to a harmonized sales tax in July. And the federal government, which is currently off recalibrating, has paid little attention to the Canadian Tourism Commission, which has been based in Vancouver for a few years now.

It's all a little disconcerting for a town like Whistler, whose only business is tourism. Taking advantage of the Olympic "afterglow" would be easier if the federal and provincial governments' intentions were clear. They will become clearer once they introduce budgets early in March. However Tuesday's cabinet shuffle has prompted a lot of speculation.

The appointment of Stockwell Day to president of the Treasury Board has been seen by many pundits as a sign the federal government will start to try and reign in the deficit this year. Day, the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla who will be challenged by Liberal/snowboarder gold medalist Ross Rebagliati in the next election, apparently has the job of saying "no" to ministers when they ask for money.

That is also likely to mean the end of the stimulus spending - Canada's economic action plan that is still being advertised. Reports suggest the economic action plan will cease by March 31, 2011.

As far as the tourism industry is concerned, stimulus spending meant a lot of one-time funding for festivals and events - $44 million for 56 events, including Grey Cup celebrations, comedy and film festivals and heritage celebrations. A further $6.5 million was announced last month for recreational infrastructure projects in B.C., such as new trails and renovations of recreation facilities.

The largest portion of the economic action plan devoted to tourism is $150 million over two years to upgrade national park facilities, including roads and national historic sites.

As for taking advantage of the Olympics, the federal government provided the Canadian Tourism Commission with $26 million over five years, 2008-2012. That's not chump change, but it's a little more than $5 million a year to promote an entire country during what the CTC calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity." The money and effort is focused on nine key markets: the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, China, South Korea and Australia.

Rob Moore, an MP from New Brunswick, was elevated from the backbench in Tuesday's cabinet shuffle. He becomes the new minister of state for small business and tourism.

Meanwhile in Victoria, Premier Gordon Campbell still wants the tourism industry to double in size by 2015, even though the HST will make everything from restaurant meals to ski lessons more expensive.

The province will present its budget on March 2. British Columbia, of course, is also in a deficit so the focus will likely be on spending cuts. That isn't all bad news for tourism. Contrary to the federal government's economic action plan, which amounts to throwing money at projects, the tourism industry would probably be happy with a self-sustaining funding formula. B.C. currently has this - the hotel tax that funded Tourism B.C. and, indirectly, destination marketing organizations like Tourism Whistler. What happens when the HST comes in July 1 is a bit unclear.

The provincial government has said the two per cent hotel tax will stay, for now. The province's finance committee has recommended it be extended beyond June 30, 2011. The finance committee also recommends the province introduce mitigation that reduces the impact of the HST on those in the tourism sector who, prior to the HST being announced, signed fixed-price contracts which extend beyond July 1, 2010. Whether this advice is heeded will be apparent March 2.

There has also been some recognition that organizations like Tourism Whistler need sustained funding, so some accommodation in the budget is likely to be made to allow tourism funding through the HST. But it's still not clear if there is a formula for long-term funding of Tourism B.C.

While there are few indications tourism at the provincial and federal levels is a priority following the Olympics, there are other funding concerns closer to home. A couple of corporate sponsorship contracts Tourism Whistler has will expire in the next year or so. They are unlikely to be renewed in the current economic climate.

So next month's budgets may go a long way to determining the intensity of the Olympic "afterglow."



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