Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes is throwing his weight behind the Greater Victoria tourism industry and calling on the provincial and federal governments to roll out a tourism-specific aid package for businesses floundering without tourists.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been “devastating” for the tourism industry, said John Wilson, president and CEO of the Wilson’s Group of Companies – a Saanich-based family business that operates sightseeing tour buses, airport shuttles and other transportation services across the Island.
Wilson has been in the industry for 35 years and has never experienced anything like this.
“It’s very, very scary,” he said, adding that he’s seen business drop 98 per cent since March 15. In that time, Wilson had to lay off nearly 300 employees – whom he refers to as “extended family.”
Wilson’s not alone – nearly 22,000 south Island workers have been laid off due to the pandemic, said Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria. He added that about 40 per cent of residents work in the tourism industry in some way.
On May 27, Premier John Horgan extended the provincial state of emergency by two weeks, stating that there’s “no end in sight.” This comment had the tourism industry quaking, Wilson said.
The entire tourism season – May through September – will be lost, Wilson said, noting that thousands rely on summer revenue to pay their winter bills.
“We can’t wait any longer” for provincial or federal aid, he said, adding that without a tourism-specific relief package in the next 14 to 30 days, B.C. could be seeing the “decimation” of an industry that brings in more than $2 billion to Greater Victoria alone.
Wilson hopes to see a package that provides the industry with funds in the form of grants or interest-free loans to ensure that businesses are still in operation when the tourists eventually return.
Tourism could play a big role in B.C.’s recuperation process, Wilson said, but without help, even the most established tourism companies could collapse – companies he feels can thrive again as long as they’re still around when tourists return.
This is about much more than just increased outdoor patio space for restaurants, Haynes said. He said while the provincial and federal governments understand what the tourism industry is facing, swift action is required to address the “acute, critical need.”
Nursey said the tourism industry has been told to market to locals and rely on B.C. residents to make up for the lack of international travel – but feels this “isn’t realistic.”
In a good year, Greater Victoria sees 2.4 million B.C. travellers and in order to make up for the lost revenue, that number would need to grow to 6 million this summer, Wilson said. He pointed out that everyone has felt the financial impacts of COVID-19 so an influx of domestic tourists is unlikely.
In early May, 12 members of the local tourism industry – including Wilson and Nursey – formed the Greater Victoria Tourism Rescue and Recovery Task Force to come up with a plan for the next 18 months, outline the required government aid and spread the word about what the industry is facing.
The task force has reached out to every level of government in hopes of keeping the dialogue open until help comes, Wilson said.
Nursey said the existing aid-packages such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy – recently extended to Aug. 31 – are beneficial but emphasized the industry has been waiting for weeks to see tourism-specific aid. So far, none has come and “collapse is imminent” for even the most “well-established” companies, he said.
Wilson is hopeful that by spring 2021, his company will still be around to continue to play a role in the community. He’s “humbled” to be asking for assistance but emphasized that the end is in sight.
“All we can do is fight the good fight and go down swinging,” he said.