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A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and British Columbia’s tourism and hospitality sector has reached a tipping point. Restrictions on travel, events, restaurants and gatherings have crippled the once vibrant industry. We’ve all but closed our borders to visitors, and businesses deemed non-essential have shuttered – many permanently.

In 2019, tourism in BC was a $21 billion industry; the forecast for 2020 is $7 billion. In other words, two thirds of the industry have been wiped out.

Tourism and hospitality are considered by many to be the glue that binds the fabric of our province’s economy. It exists almost everywhere, from large communities to small suburbs, many of which rely solely on tourism dollars to stay afloat. To put it plainly: the long-term viability of BC is linked to the sector’s success.

Operators have elevated their health and safety measures to continue providing experiences under the current circumstances. Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, located in the heart of BC’s Columbia Valley, has shifted to curate smaller events and experiences that allow for physical distancing, enhanced sanitation and an overall more intimate experience for households. Not only has the Resort pivoted to remain operational – at various times of the year, its over 125 staff members are made up of locals from the surrounding community of 500 people, as well as the wider Columbia Valley including Canal Flats, Invermere and beyond.

We are thankful for everything that has been done thus far to support small-to-medium-sized businesses, but more is needed to sustain the industry moving forward, especially large operators. Because of the way things are structured, cornerstone businesses such as major attractions, hotels, transportation providers and others that have yet to qualify or receive relief funding. If these businesses collapse, the smaller ones will follow.

Across the region, ski hills have been consistent in their rollout of COVID-19 operation plans, from face coverings to health screening. It was recently pointed out by Premier John Horgan that these destinations and an activity like skiing are not the problem – it is people looking for social gatherings once these activities are done. Why must we force operators to close their doors to business when they are doing everything possible to provide experiences safely?

Aside from better access to financial relief measures for businesses to remain solvent, the industry needs two key things in collaboration with the government.

First, messaging. The tourism and hospitality sector and government need to work together to develop and communicate cohesive messaging that educates on the various reasons for travel, and how to do so responsibly to ensure the health and safety of visitors and locals alike when travel restrictions and advisories are lifted. People will travel for a variety of reasons when the timing is right, be it leisure, work or a second home. What is expected from them when visiting BC? Instead of limiting travel, we need to consider a more balanced approach and other ways to reach current and prospective visitors. This includes working with government on consistent messaging focused on respecting and abiding by local health and safety protocols.

The second thing needed is a proper restart plan. Not a plan centered on opening dates and gathering capacities, but a plan that examines what we do when we open our traveler economy safely. Governments need to work with industry on a safe and competitive reopening plan outlining the necessary steps to restart the visitor economy when the time is right. The reopening plan would include key elements such as rapid-testing, border mobility, a workforce strategy, vaccines, marketing and other essentials, something which other provinces have done already. Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta all have reopening plans… BC should as well.

Tourism operators are doing everything they can to inspire consumer confidence. Industry-wide practices are being adopted by restaurants, hotels and other related businesses so that they can continue to welcome patrons and ultimately, keep their doors open. If the industry does not get the strategic support it needs – support that will allow it to adapt to this new reality – it will collapse, period.