Businesses in Vancouver’s travel and tourism industry are bracing – yet again – for booking cancellations and delayed recovery this winter season.
Vancouver welcomed more than 11 million overnight visitors in 2019, contributing $14 billion in total revenues to the Metro Vancouver economy and supporting over 104,000 full-time jobs. By comparison, revenues fell by 70 per cent in 2020.
As the largest Canadian city located on the West Coast, Vancouver is Canada’s gateway to the Pacific and the Far East – a critical catalyst to Canada’s economic diversification and connection to the world. Tourism and business travel has been an economic anchor for the Greater Vancouver area, which has earned a reputation as one of Canada’s prime destinations for leisure, meetings, and event travellers.
While the lifting and easing of COVID travel restrictions over recent months have been positive steps, industry and business leaders say the federal government’s mandatory PCR test to enter the country is keeping international travellers away.
“Business travel from the U.S., Asia, and around the world has pretty much come to a complete halt, and that is hurting our cities, especially Vancouver’s downtown core. Getting rid of unnecessary and outdated travel rules will help Vancouver get back to business,” said Bridgitte Anderson, president and CEO, Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.
Travellers currently entering Canada must show proof of a negative PCR test, also known as a molecular test, taken within 72 hours of their departing flight or planned arrival at the border. But those tests can be expensive, running up to $300, and can take up to 24 hours for results.
The United States requires only a rapid antigen test (costing as little as $20) with results possible in as little as 15 minutes.
With the city’s hospitality sector heavily dependent on international business travel, the fear of visitors starting to either cancel or delay long-awaited trips is growing.
“Despite the broad availability of vaccines, and stable COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates across the country, many of our members are facing another winter season of staff cutbacks and low revenues as foreign visitors decide to stay home. As long as fully vaccinated foreign visitors continue to face unnecessary restrictions, this will continue to be the case, and businesses will continue to suffer. We need the federal government to make common-sense changes to the rules so British Columbia’s hotels – and the families and communities they support – can get back to work,” said Mike Macleod, director, British Columbia Hotel Association.
Canada’s rules run counter to the recommendations made by the federal government’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel Report, which concluded that fully vaccinated travellers should not require a pre-departure test.
Canada’s travel rules are also out of step with the international community, including the United States. France, Portugal, Germany and the United Kingdom have recognized that requiring pre-departure and arrival tests for vaccinated travellers is redundant and have exempted fully vaccinated travellers from pre-departure testing requirements.
“The PCR test signals to international business travellers that Canada is not open for business. It also takes longer to get back PCR test results, which presents logistical challenges for short business trips and trips with a packed agenda. If we continue down this path, we will be at a severe disadvantage to our peers in the U.S. and Europe,” said Claire Newell, president, Travel Best Bets.
While domestic travellers have helped support local tourism, “travellers from the United States bring in nearly double what a domestic traveller spends in our destination, and other international visitors spend nearly three times as much as a domestic traveller,” said Karen Soyka, vice president, Destination Vancouver, noting in 2020, 193 different business meetings and events booked for Vancouver were cancelled. “The PCR test is a major barrier for international visitors who hope to travel to Vancouver and other parts of our province.”
Not only could leisure and business travellers stay away because of the pricey test requirement, there’s fear event organizers will look elsewhere too.
“The lead time and in terms of those groups and events, they need to book, in some cases — the bigger the event, the longer the lead time — two, three, four, five years,” said Macleod.
After more than 20 months of pandemic policies (lockdown, border closures, travel bans), the sector from across the country is calling for the federal government to remove “unnecessary and non-science-based obstacles to international travel,” such as pre-arrival PCR testing for fully vaccinated travellers.
“We know that the rebuild of our industry will take time and we need the partnership of government to reduce the obstacles to travel so that our city’s tourism businesses can recover,” said Soyka.