National tourism leaders and senior government officials convened in Vancouver last Thursday (Jan. 17) to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the industry, with the focus on finding ways to improve international tourist access to Canada.
The roundtable meeting, which was arranged by Tourism Whistler (TW) president Barrett Fisher, Grouse Mountain president Stuart McLaughlin and West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast Sea-to-Sky Country MP John Weston, identified four major points for discussion: improving international air access to Canada, streamlining the tax rebate process for visitors, loosening visa requirements for certain countries and looking at funding options for the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC).
“The important thing is that we were identifying areas of upside where Canada can expand the economy, provide more jobs and provide more revenues for tourism operators,” said Weston. “We have identified areas where we don’t understand why certain impediments exist, and I think there’s some pretty clear steps forward on what can be done to address those.”
On the agenda was the government’s Open Skies initiative, which is aimed at easing some of the restrictions on international airlines looking to fly to Canada.
“Open Skies is certainly a bigger issue because it’s surrounded by a lot of federal regulations,” said Fisher. “In an ideal world, we’d like to see greater open skies, and what that means is that we would have more bilateral agreements with varying airlines supplying service out of varying countries in order to increase our access out of market, our volume of flights and our price competitiveness.”
Canada currently has 88 Air Service Agreements, which can include restrictions on airports that can be served, airfares, flight frequency, seat capacity and the designation of air carriers. Of those 88, only eight — with Barbados, Dominican Republic, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, South Korea, United Kingdom and the United States — are classified as Open Skies agreements, which effectively allow market forces to determine the commercial decisions of air carriers without treaty restrictions.
The roundtable also looked at improving the HST and GST rebate process for visitors, especially large tour and conference groups, a major tourism driver for Whistler. The federal government currently provides tax rebates on hotel accommodations, tour packages and merchandise to eligible international visitors.
“The (rebate) application process is fairly onerous, so as low-hanging fruit, our hope is that we can have the federal government look at streamlining that process,” said Fisher.
Oftentimes tour and conference group organizers aren’t bothering to apply for tax rebates for their clients, said Fisher, charging the additional taxes directly to their guests, making Canada “less competitive from a price perspective.”
Meeting attendees, who included Senator Nancy Greene-Raine, Richmond Centre MLA Rob Howard and a representative from the Prime Minister’s Office, also discussed loosening visa requirements for visitors from Mexico, Brazil, China, Russia and India.
Thanks to Tourism Whistler’s recommendations last year, the federal government made it easier for Mexicans to acquire tourist visas to Canada with an increase in visa processing offices in that country.
“We’ve actually seen some real progress being made with Mexican visas,” said Fisher, whose ultimate hope is to eliminate visas for Mexican visitors altogether. “It’s really about applying some of the lessons and successes we’ve had in Mexico to Brazil, China, India and Russia.”
Ottawa also helped to improve visitor access to Canada last year by passing a measure allowing individuals with aged misdemeanour charges on their criminal record to cross the border in certain cases. Tourism industry leaders would like to increase awareness of this new measure to encourage more visitors.
TW presented a position paper to the federal government last year on the issue of visitor inadmissibility to Canada over minor criminal charges, which helped lead to the change in regulations.
Finally, attendees of the five-hour meeting explored potential funding options for the CTC. With the Conservative government planning to cut funding to Canada’s national tourism marketer in 2013-14 by 17 per cent from this year’s levels, the group looked at funding alternatives like taking a portion of unused visitor tax rebates and applying those funds towards CTC’s marketing efforts or implementing a tiered airport levy tax.
“We’re losing our competitiveness from a marketing spend perspective,” said Fisher, who added that the U.S. and U.K. are spending between $150 million and $200 million annually on promoting tourism, compared to the $58 million slated for Canada in 2014.
The key for success, according to Fisher, is to find ways to support both Canada’s tourism industry and a Conservative government looking to tighten its purse strings in tough economic times.
“We want to make it a win-win both for industry and for government,” she said. “This is really about making sure that the tourism industry is recognized for its value, but that simultaneously it increases its value so that the government sees the benefits in increased tax revenues while industry sees the benefit in increases revenues and profits.”
TW will present its findings from the meeting and provide recommendations to senior government officials in the coming months.