The Canadian tourism sector has experienced a brisk recovery since the initial pandemic lockdowns, according to economic experts. But that recovery pace has been easing due to higher interest rates, a slowing job market, and broader cyclical slowdown in the U.S. and abroad. In Ontario, many tourism operators continue to face a great deal of debt caused by the pandemic, prompting many to worry about what the future holds.
Locally, tourism in 2024 is expected to continue to do well, despite the ‘economic crunch’ that may prompt travelers to adjust their plans in the coming year.
We reached out to Explore Waterloo CEO Michele Saran to get her take on what the local tourism sector can expect in the New Year:
How is local tourism shaping up for 2024, considering the economic realities many people are dealing with?
Tourism in Waterloo Region is expected to continue doing well into 2024. We are beating 2019 pre-pandemic; hotel occupancy numbers and campaigns are driving keen interest in our offerings. Yes, the economic crunch is impacting everyone and may result in visitors spending a bit less but not completely abandoning all vacation plans. People consider travel a priority and have been shown to spend less in other discretionary areas to afford some kind of getaway with family and friends. Waterloo Region’s main market is the GTA, and we really lean into the concept of being the perfect road trip destination. This type of travel can be as budget conscious as one wishes. There are so many affordable options for fun.
Are local tourism operators feeling optimistic about what is in store for 2024?
The operators I speak with are all quite optimistic about a strong 2024, despite concerns around inflation and its impact on visitor spending. In addition to leisure travel, we are also seeing incredible interest in the region for meetings, conventions, and sporting events. The tourism industry is nothing if not resilient. Having come out on the other side of a worldwide pandemic that shut everything down completely, we now have the gift of perspective.
What are some of the hurdles do local tourism operators face in the coming year?
One of the biggest challenges facing tourism operators everywhere (not just in Waterloo Region) is rebuilding the workforce. Hospitality workers left the industry during the pandemic, and many did not return. Industry advocacy organizations are working to address this issue from many angles, from working with government to ease immigration barriers to marketing the industry to students as a career choice. Finding affordable housing is a big hurdle for those in the service sector. Many of the destinations that are the most popular with visitors are also very expensive places to live. People want to live in the same area where they work, and this presents another labour-related challenge for the tourism industry as well as many others.
Despite optimism for next year’s visitation potential, a very significant issue is the amount of debt tourism businesses incurred during the pandemic just to stay afloat and survive. According to the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, 55% of operators say they lack confidence they will be able to repay their debts in two years and 45% risk closure in three years without government intervention. Thirty-three percent of tourism businesses indicate that they hold more than 250K in outstanding debt. This is a serious issue and one all tourism advocacy organizations continue to push with government for solutions.
Is talk of the pandemic a thing of the past?
I recently returned from the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Annual Tourism Congress. The conversation was around the legacy effects of COVID cited above but I think the entire industry is ready to put the pandemic itself in the rearview mirror and focus on what we do best – welcoming visitors and showing them why our area is fantastic.
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