The month of September was a brief window of reprieve for Toronto tour operator Sash Munjal in what was otherwise a devastating year.
“We got tours going from Aug. 29 until Oct. 6, when the premier made his announcement that we were going back into restrictions,” Munjal, who owns ShortTrips.ca, told CBC Toronto.
“The entire tourism sector pretty much got a bit of a bloodbath” due to COVID-19, he said.
As for his own business, “we’re just hanging on by our fingernails.”
A new analysis by industry association Destination Toronto looks at the impact on the city’s tourism industry, following a year of on-and-off pandemic lockdowns.
It found the city lost out on more than $8 billion in economic activity through visitor spending — a number that balloons to more than $14 billion when you look at the Greater Toronto Area.
“The tourism and hospitality industry was really hit first and probably hardest, and looks like it will be the last to recover,” said Destination Toronto vice-president Andrew Weir.
Though there’s a long road ahead, Weir says his team is working hard on plans to entice visitors back when it’s safe for them to return — and hoping to lure back businesses for meetings and events.
Destination Toronto tracked 463 conferences and events that were cancelled or postponed since the pandemic began, amounting to $833 million in losses.
Conventions and meetings are “foundational to the [tourism] business in Toronto, and often get booked a couple of years in advance.”
Drawing in visitors could start with you
One of the first steps in Destination Toronto’s recovery strategy: getting residents and their social media feeds to help spread the word that the city is a welcoming place for tourists again.
“The more we get out and engage with the city … have meals on patios, go to some outdoor events when they start up again… That’s going to be the catalyst,” said Weir.
“When people see the photos we share, then people outside the city start to see Toronto coming back.”
Weir envisages a multi-stage comeback, in which Ontarians, then Canadians, then international travellers can gradually begin visiting again.
Jim Byers, editor-in-chief at canadiantravelnews.ca and author of a book about Ontario destinations, says promoting safety should be another key part of the city’s pitch to visitors.
“I think most cities that can will be trying to talk about their open spaces,” he said. “Toronto is blessed with a lot of pretty wonderful nature.”
What can we learn from SARS?
Destination Toronto can also look back to 2003, when a group of tourism organizations, attractions and different levels of government worked together to boost the city’s tarnished image during the SARS outbreak.
Called Toront03, they raised money and then spent it on promoting the city in the northern United States.
The goal was to show the city was “open, alive, and well,'” said Kevin Shea, who served as president of the group.
Shea says they also worked on attractions, bringing the Conan O’Brien show to the city, creating theatre and hotel packages, and promoting a free Rolling Stones concert.
Both Shea and Weir from Destination Toronto say they believe pent-up demand for in-person experiences will lead to big spending in Toronto when it is finally green-lit.
“There’s many Canadians that now have more money in the bank because there’s nowhere to spend it … I think it’s going to be the roaring 20s all over again,” said Shea.
Full recovery could take 5 years
Despite that optimism, industry predictions suggest it could be years before Canada returns to its pre-pandemic tourism spending levels.
According to Destination Canada, if the borders stay closed until Oct. 2021 — it will take until 2026 for the country to return to 2019 levels of activity.
Industry associations continue to call on government support to get businesses through the difficult times ahead.
The Tourism Industry Association of Canada put out a five-point 2021 recovery plan, calling on the federal government to extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and create a recovery stimulus fund, among other things.
“The big concern is making sure businesses are still there,” said Weir.