Like many Canadians in 2019, Toronto resident Daniela Renda was looking forward to a new year filled with fun travels, including a planned trip to Italy and France with her family.
Of course, we know how this story played out – the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 derailed international and even cross-border travel plans for most Canadians.
“It was devastating, because I didn’t want to spend another summer in Toronto. I wanted to get out of town. But you know, a pandemic changes things,” Renda recalled.
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As 2022 approaches, even with the whirlwind of the Omicron wave and an uncertain year of possible pandemic outbreaks, Renda’s travel plans have changed course and she is eager to get away to her home province.
Rather than booking villas in Italy, she has planned 10 days this summer at a cabin she visited last winter in the Kawarthas, followed by a wine tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario.
“If I can’t taste wine in Tuscany, I can do it right here in Ontario,” says Renda.
Stays offer a local escape
Convenience and safe stays, as local travel has been dubbed, are seen by industry leaders as a possible lifeline to sustain Canada’s hotel sector after nearly two years of rotating shutdowns, restrictions travel and general anxiety around international travel. But some warn that local businesses will not be enough to sustain the industry in the long term.
Staycations are increasingly attractive to Canadians like Renda who may be worried about COVID-19 protocols and the pandemic situation abroad in 2022.
“You don’t have to worry about converting money. You can do a lot of short weekend trips instead of long trips. And I feel safer staying in Ontario right now rather than getting on a plane and doing all these COVID tests,” she says.
“What happens if you catch COVID on your second day of vacation? It certainly won’t be fun.
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Google trends show that searches for the word “staycation” peaked in Canada in the first week of January 2022 relative to the extent of the pandemic.
In Ontario, the government has unveiled a stay tax credit for 2022 that will give residents the option of reimbursing 20 per cent of the cost of their stay in accommodation in the province.
The Ontario government expects the program to cost $270 million and hopes the incentive will revive an industry that has struggled during the pandemic.
Similar programs in other Canadian provinces, such as a two-week incentive in Manitoba last summer, have shown early signs of success.
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Chris Bloore, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, says restrictions on international and cross-border travel have dealt a heavy blow to most of its members. Some tour operators along the US border have seen their revenues drop by up to 90% without the support of US tourists.
The Niagara region, for example, has lost about $4 billion in gross domestic product since the pandemic began, he says.
Overall, Canada’s tourism sector saw a 53% decline in GDP in the first year of the pandemic, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council. While contributions from international travelers have plummeted due to COVID-19, domestic tourism spending has also been cut in half in 2020.
Experts say the need for local support in the tourism industry is paramount as we approach a third year of the pandemic.
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“US travelers and international travelers have a huge influence on our industry in very specific areas,” Bloore says, citing big cities like Toronto and Ottawa.
“Domestic tourism is really going to have to fill a void in the meantime.”
Small towns reap the rewards of local tourism
But while there has been a silver lining to the impact of the pandemic on tourism, there has been increased attention to rural and small town destinations as a chance to escape the crowds and spend time outdoors. ‘outside.
Data provided to Global News by Airbnb shows that Bancroft-Madawaska, near Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, was a top destination for U.S. and Canadian bookings in the summer of 2021. One in five Airbnb hosts in Canada own rural property , the rental platform said.
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One of these “unearthed gems,” as Bloore calls them, is Prince Edward County, which includes the town of Picton, Ontario.
Niall McCotter, operations manager of the Royal Hotel in Picton, is banking on staycationers to give the hotel a long-awaited fresh start.
The heritage property has been under renovation for five years and finally opened with a soft launch a few weeks ago.
The ‘vast majority’ of bookings for the Royal in 2022 so far have come from people within a three-hour radius, says McCotter, with Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston and even Montreal acting as ‘big relays’ for the abode in booming.
The Royal Hotel itself, considered a wreck by many until new owners stepped in to restore it, could be an example of the untapped potential the pandemic has revealed in local tourism markets.
McCotter says the pandemic has brought attention to what Ontario and Canada have to offer. “I think hopefully there’s been this kind of long-term change where you’ll be looking close, close to home, as much as you’re looking away.”
Ontario has world-class destinations in its backyard, says McCotter. The pandemic has shone a light on potential, so what has been “a tragic and horrific time for our industry has been a kind of blessing in disguise.”
Stays are not enough to save the industry
McCotter says that while the local market is the Royal’s top priority, hotel management aspires to eventually attract international visitors to the small Ontario town.
Tony Elenis, head of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, told Global News its members will need visitors from across the Canadian border to return before the hospitality industry can fully recover. of the impact of the pandemic, a phenomenon he and Bloore foresee. be in two years.
“The staycation is positive, but not enough to sustain the industry,” he says.
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While government support has been essential so far, Elenis says hotel operators need more cash injections to help cover rising inflation and payroll expenses.
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister responsible for tourism, says the staycation tax credit is “time-limited” for 2022 only, but the province is working with the federal government and regional tourism organizations on “stackable incentives” that could see other players in the tourism industry supported.
“We believe that with (the tax credit) they will obviously spend on gas, they will spend money on restaurants and, of course, on some of our cultural attractions,” she says.
MacLeod says the incentive is just a signal that the province thinks tourism will be safe again in 2022. The Ontario government on Thursday unveiled plans to gradually lift Ontario’s restrictions related to the Omicron wave. The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, has endorsed the reopening plan, and MacLeod says it should make Ontarians feel safe taking a trip to the province.
“This is really good news for our industry because it means we are open and ready to go.”
While Renda says the time away from her favorite international destinations has been hard to swallow, she also says an eventual return to global travel will be all the sweeter when the pandemic is firmly in the rearview mirror.
In the meantime, she says, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to “find out where you’re from” and focus on the other things that make traveling worthwhile.
“It doesn’t matter where you are. If the company is really great, you can be on the hillsides of Tuscany or in a bistro in Paris or just at the cottage in Ontario, and it will be a good time anyway,” she says.
– With files from Anne Gaviola of Global News
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