How Small Towns Are Supporting the Canadian Tourism Industry

By Sushant Trivedi

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It’s no exaggeration to say the COVID-19 pandemic had a tremendous impact on the Canadian tourism industry. With frequently changing travel restrictions and various safety measures in place, typically wanderlust-driven individuals were advised to stay at home and avoid non-essential domestic or international travel. As reported by Destination Canada, international overnight arrivals in Canada in 2021 were a devastating 86 percent below 2019 levels. This followed the lost year of 2020 when arrivals were down 87 percent from 2019. The findings of a HelloSafe survey earlier this year also showed that more than 80 percent of Canadians had not left the country in two years.

Now, while the resurgent demand for travel is high, we must consider the role tourism plays in the Canadian economy and the pandemic’s impact on those smaller communities that inspire many travellers to explore Canada. One such place is Churchill, Manitoba, where I recently travelled with Frontiers North Adventures and was awestruck by both the community and its resilience. Along with taking in the wonder of the northern lights, I met tour operators, hotel and restaurant owners, and hospitality staff whose prosperity relies on tourists visiting their unique part of Canada.

Tourism’s Crucial Economic Contribution

Canadian tourism accounted for two percent of GDP in 2015, making it larger than telecommunications and mining. With $102 billion in annual economic activity and 1.8 million jobs in the sector, tourism spans the country with businesses located in every region, province, territory, town, and community. Transportation, accommodation, food and beverage, meetings and events, and attractions are all part of Canada’s tourism industry, playing a pivotal role in the country’s economy. The pandemic affected all of these sectors, with tourist numbers down across the country.

As an important economic contributor, the industry is responsible for more than $25 billion in tax revenues. It is a major source of employment in every region of the country, with almost two million Canadians working in its component sectors. This includes destination marketing organisations (DMOs) such as Travel Manitoba, which helped organise my trip to Churchill. Canada, a country of vast landscapes and breathtaking nature, has an incredible variety of tourist destinations to explore, and rural communities are home to some of the most stunning natural attractions. Time and again, DMOs like Travel Manitoba provide an easy pathway to visiting Canada’s rural communities found off-the-beaten-path.

Whether it’s the Thompson Valley or Churchill, a town that is home to roughly 900 people — famous for polar-bear watching and northern lights sightings — these communities and the local businesses within them are very much dependent on tourists to support their livelihoods. Not only do tourists impact the businesses financially, but they can also help bring vibrancy to these communities as residents go about their daily routines.

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Churchill Manitoba Northern Lights
Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo taken during Sushant Trivedi’s trip to Churchill – March 2022.

Tourism Creates Jobs

Almost 400 municipalities in Canada rely on tourism for over 15 percent of the employment in their communities. Tourism offers important jobs with career choices in well-paid, highly skilled fields, while providing opportunities for young and new Canadians. Those aged 15 to 24 represent 31 percent of tourism employees, and 40 percent of Canadian youth employment is in tourism, with many students leveraging a summer or seasonal job to pay for school. Additionally, roughly 25 percent of tourism employees are immigrants or non-permanent residents, and many employers rely on temporary foreign workers due to the sector’s labour shortage.

As tourism supports more than 1.8 million jobs in Canada, with 56 percent of those jobs located in rural areas as of 2020, a decline in travel to smaller towns can impact the labour workforce. With many restaurants rebuilding their customer base, hotels phasing reopening, and flight routes still limited, youth and newcomer employees face layoffs if travellers do not come back, and ultimately the whole community suffers. Canada’s unemployment rates may be at an all-time low after all-time highs during COVID, but unlike big cities where jobs and opportunities are often in plentiful supply, the same cannot be said for small towns that rely on tourism.

Churchill Manitoba
Photo of Churchill Manitoba by Sushant Trivedi 

Now, as travel restrictions ease and visitors return to Canada, it is time to shine a light on the beautiful small towns that have been deeply affected by the pandemic — and recognize how the travel community is key to revitalising these communities. Smithers, known as the gateway to the North, is a prime example. In April, this quaint destination won the Northern division in CBC’s Search for B.C.’s Best Small Town. Earlier this year, Smithers received $505,000 in COVID-relief funding to help upgrade the Smithers Regional Airport and offset major revenue losses. More investments like this example are needed in small towns across the province.

When marketing Canada to visitors, metropolitan areas often see much of the limelight. Not to mention, solutions for rebounding after COVID typically catered to bigger cities and destinations. The impact on small towns is often overlooked, and an insufficient level of support is offered to cover losses. It’s crucial for Canadians and international travellers alike to be aware of those destinations that offer Canada’s most exciting and authentic experiences. The wonderment of Canada’s natural landscapes goes beyond its widely known cities; it is also at the heart of its treasured rural communities.

Visiting small towns as a tourist can give you a deeper understanding of many things, including the importance of sustainable travel, local customs, and Indigenous cultures. The best travel experiences are about connection, learning, and breaking down barriers. Dedicated tourism organisations, including DMOs like Travel Manitoba, know smaller regions well and can stimulate these economies while creating transformative experiences for travellers. My own visit to Churchill, Manitoba, helped me understand the opportunities that exist in these areas. I hope more tourists from around the world get to enjoy the wonders of small-town Canada.

Written by Sushant Trivedi, CEO of Fresh Tracks Canada

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