Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tourist decline alarming

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Whether it's two weeks, three weeks or four or more weeks, your vacation is very important to you. Imagine how important it is for our province, communities and people who depend on visitors from other parts of the country or the world.

The role tourism plays in our provincial economy might surprise you. Based on 2011 tourism data from Statistics Canada, the amount of money spent by visitors in Manitoba totals more than $1.4 billion. That makes up about 3.6 per cent of total gross domestic product. While we can document how much is spent, what is hard to document is the impact tourists have on specialized operators in smaller, seasonal communities.

What may also surprise, and what is becoming alarmingly clear to those in the tourism industry, is a continued decline in the number of people visiting Canada. Simply put, Canadian tourism numbers having been eroding over the past decade, dropping from 20.1 million visitors in 2002 to 16.3 million in 2012. Canada's international arrivals barely grew in 2012 while global international arrivals grew four per cent during the same period.

Canada is one of only five countries (Poland, Ireland, Tunisia and Brazil are the others) to experience a drop in arrivals in the last 10 years and is one of only two with a double-digit decline (Canada at minus 18 per cent and Poland minus 22 per cent). Early numbers for 2013 show that trend continuing. Numbers for June show another decrease, the fifth consecutive this year.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in its recent discussion paper Restoring Canadian Tourism points to a multitude of reasons for why tourism numbers have declined, including increased tourism competitiveness, outdated aviation policy and high costs associated with travel into Canada.

We have spent far too long defining the reasons why travel to Canada is suffering. We now need to take the next steps to reposition the Canadian tourism sector before the numbers erode beyond repair.

The Canadian Chamber made four recommendations to help kick start the industry: market more strongly; address the cost competitiveness issues; reinvest portions of collected visa administration fees into Canada's visa processing capacity; and implement the strategies of the federal government's tourism strategy, Welcoming the World.

While the Canadian Chamber is taking a country-wide approach, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce believes we also need to focus on helping create tourism resurgence here at home.

Since taking over as president and CEO of the Manitoba Chamber, I have spoken with people in the tourism industry and heard their concerns and visions for the future. One thing was clear -- a greater focus needs to be paid to the Manitoba tourism industry.

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce believe tourism is a critical pillar that can grow and strengthen Manitoba and our economy. Strong policy will help guide and prepare everyone involved to tackle the challenges that lie before the industry.

Our province is rich with beauty, things to see and undiscovered gems.

How the industry markets itself, and our province, will play a major role in future growth. Those countries and markets that have proven successful in attracting tourists have done so through a combination of focused marketing campaign and strong support from stakeholders and the various levels of government.

The story is an old one: industry and government must be united. Through conversation with industry and past conversation with government, I know there is common ground and a strong belief in what Manitoba has to offer.

For too long we have watched as tourism numbers decline. The time is now to correct the problems. The industry and its impact on operators and the province's bottom line are too important to ignore any longer.

Chuck Davidson is president and CEO

of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2013 A9

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