Ontario tourism sector facing difficulty with drier winter start, other issues: advocates

Parts of Ontario have seen a warmer and drier start to winter and advocates say it comes at a time when the province's winter tourism sector is dealing with inflation, COVID-19 loan repayments and staffing shortages. Nick Westoll has more.

As much of southern Ontario marked the winter season’s first notable snow system, it comes at a time when the tourism sector has been dealing with various challenges that could put some operators in a precarious position.

Up at Blue Mountain Resort, Tuesday’s snowfall brought more people to the ski hills. CityNews spoke with several people who were only getting in their first or second ski season runs.

“The weather hasn’t been in our favour, but we’ve been doing our best to get the snow out there for all the fellow skiers and snowboarders,” Sarah Wells, an operator of the resort’s snowmaker, said while squeezing in a trip down the hill.

Wells, along with other resort staff, said they’re looking forward to the week ahead when conditions will be better for building up snow packs on the ski runs. As of Tuesday, only 16 out of 40 runs at Blue Mountain Resort were open.

“Snowmaking is kind of a science,” spokesperson Tara Lovell told CityNews while referencing the resort’s advanced snow-generating system.

“We can make snow in temperatures as warm as -2 C, but there are factors like humidity and wind direction that the team needs to watch for to make sure that we can do it as efficiently as possible.”

Lovell said the resort experienced a “trickier start” in December, but crews have been waiting for optimal windows to pump out snow so all 40 runs can open.

“Thankfully here we are now,” she said.

Blue Mountain typically sees its biggest influx of visitors during the Christmas holidays and that posed a complication.

“With the warmer temperatures that we saw and the lack of natural snowfall, it was really challenging to keep that vibe of winter and excitement going,” Lovell said.

“Thankfully, we have off-hill activities that we can offer our guests all winter long … so with that kind of diversity of offering we’ve been able to keep people outside and busy.”

It’s the kind of adaptation to changing weather conditions that advocates said will be needed heading into the future.

“(There’s) more to be done in terms of transforming Ontario’s tourism offerings and ensuring that our industry can sustain for the long run,” Jessica Ng, a director with the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO), said.

CityNews asked Ng about what members were reporting when it came to the warmer, drier end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024.

“We’re seeing some operators a lot more optimistic than others about this season, but already seeing those financial impacts to winter-dependent tourism businesses or ripple effects for local visitor economies,” she said.

“It’s too soon to see and to predict how dire the situation is, but so far (with) this winter season’s revenue shortfalls due to weather we do predict that this is going to have some compounding financial impacts for winter tourism operators.”

For example, Ng said with snowmobile trails and ski trails closed, limited ice fishing and restricted ski runs at resorts, people aren’t staying at lodgings, going out for food or drinks, buying supplies at local stories and visiting local attractions.

Aside from warmer weather, the industry is facing other serious challenges.

“We know that with the cost of living crisis, those consumers who had decided on international destinations, international vacations, rather have instead chosen to stay close to home, but that does mean spending a lot less money than they had planned for,” Ng said before shifting to problems filling open positions.

“We saw during COVID-19 a lot of folks who worked in tourism and hospitality businesses … (they) left the industry for other occupations due to job losses, layoffs.

A lot of folks have not returned, and so those gaps are really exacerbated as well by the rising cost of housing, cost of living, that makes it a lot more difficult for people to choose to work in tourism.”

Ng said the tourism sector is still trying to recover from COVID-19, which resulted in many operations being ordered closed for an extended period. She said many took advantage of federal loans as a lifeline to keep businesses surviving.

“That deadline to refinance that loan or repay most of what they’ve owed to qualify for partial loan forgiveness, (it’s) coming up very quickly — coming up far too soon for most tourism operators,” Ng said.

“Last year, we conducted a survey along with our national partners and found that about 45 per cent of Canadian tourism businesses say they might close within the next three years without government intervention.

“That debt issue is really weighing heavily on tourism operators. When you’ve got that warmer weather impact on the winter season for winter-dependent businesses, it really impacts their capacity to generate that revenue to pay down that debt.”

Compounding the issues for Ontario’s tourism sector and despite the inflation issues is a strong demand for international travel. A pickup in snowfalls in the GTA could be another reason for people to pursue that trip.

Pam deHaan, the marketing director for the travel agency TripCentral.ca, said they’ve noticed an increase in last-minute bookings. She also said there are deals to be had for certain international destinations — discounted at a rate that isn’t being seen in Ontario or the rest of Canada.

“Our Black Friday … was a record-breaking day for us and the travel trend is continuing,” deHaan said.

“There are all kinds of deals right now: Good hotels, four-star hotels, seven nights, all-inclusive per week under $1,000.

“Domestic prices have increased for sure for hotels and car rentals, so it is expensive to travel domestically that hasn’t come down that much yet.”

When it comes to international destinations in the winter, deHaan said Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico continue to be the top three spots. She added there’s been a growing demand for Jamaica and a desire among many to go on cruises.

Meanwhile, Ng said her organization is calling on governments to do more to help the sector.

She said there should be a push to bid on bigger winter events that can be hosted in Ontario to draw in more visitors, more expansive destination marketing campaigns and for the Ontario government to bring back the so-called Staycation tax credit to incentivize travel within the province.

“There is an absolute role for government to really step up that marketing of Ontario as a prime destination for Ontario visitors, Canadian visitors and international visitors and visitors that we’ve lost during COVID,” Ng said.

“There does need to be work to really … get Ontario back out there. We’re falling behind, unfortunately, other Canadian destinations and other international destinations. There’s so much more that needs to be done.”

CityNews contacted Ontario Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Neil Lumsden’s office to ask about the concerns put forward by TIAO. In a statement, a spokesperson said tourism is a “vital economic driver” that supports up to 390,000 jobs.

“The tourism industry is essential to the success of Ontario’s economy and the people who work in our communities,” it said.

When asked if the Staycation tax credit could return, the question went unanswered, but the statement said it provided an estimated $270 million in support.

The statement pointed out that $3.5 million is being spent this year to help 44 sports events be held (e.g. 2024 Canadian Under-19 Curling Championships) across the province while also referencing $19.5 million spent on festival grants in 2023 and almost $20 million for regional tourism organization.

Officials said Destination Ontario is going to start its winter advertising campaign on the week of Jan. 15.

The statement also reiterated a past call by provincial politicians to the federal government to give additional time for businesses to apply for loan forgiveness opportunities along with extending repayment windows. There was no indication that the Ontario government would step in to assist.

“The province continues to assess areas of challenge and opportunities for the industry,” the statement said.

“We are working with Ontario’s tourism stakeholders to support the growth and sustainability of the industry by creating the right environment to generate economic activity and create jobs in communities across the province throughout the year.”

Other business sectors, particularly the restaurant industry, have been urging the federal government to change the deadlines. CityNews spoke with business owners who have said the current arrangement could mean serious trouble. There’s no indication if the federal government is considering changing the deadline again.

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