'The tap remains completely turned off': Ottawa tourism leaders urge feds to reopen border

Ottawa sign

Ottawa’s tourism industry issued a public “cry for help” on Thursday, urging the federal government to open Canada’s borders to fully vaccinated foreigners in a bid to boost a sector that’s been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fully vaccinated people should be able to visit Ottawa this summer – full stop,” Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, said during a news conference that included leaders from across the local industry. 

“Foreign travel fuels Ottawa’s economy in the summer, but the tap remains completely turned off. It is way past time for this to change.”

The event at the Canadian Museum of History featured a collection of local tourism entrepreneurs, executives and association leaders as well as heads of national business organizations banding together to pressure all levels of government to ease restrictions they say have hit the industry disproportionately hard.

The National Capital Region attracted about 11 million visitors a year before the pandemic, but those numbers have since plummeted. Ottawa Tourism estimates the city lost $1.4 billion in visitor spending in 2020 and is predicting a similar loss for 2021. 

While travellers from outside Canada make up only about 10 per cent of all visitors to the capital – with roughly five per cent coming from the U.S. and five per cent from other countries – local tourism officials say they tend to spend more and stay longer than domestic visitors, making border restrictions particularly tough to swallow for the industry.

Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said tourism businesses want clear guidelines about when they’ll be allowed to fully reopen, adding that time is of the essence for the industry to cash in on what’s traditionally its busiest time of year.

Tourist season 'fast disappearing'

“We keep hearing that plans are coming, but it’s now well into July and the 2021 tourist season is fast disappearing,” he said. “Businesses simply cannot afford to wait any longer.

“Whether you’re talking about a restaurant, the border or a festival, it’s much easier to shut it down than to reopen it. It’s not like throwing a switch. It takes literally weeks and potentially months to be able to get an operation up and running again. If we wait until later, we run the risk of losing all of the summer tourist season, and that would be tragic.”

Ching agreed.

“One day in the summer can equal one week’s worth of business in the winter, and it is quickly slipping away,” she said. “We need the green light to reopen so we can recover and rebound before it is too late.”

Beatty said he and other industry leaders are also worried that a potential fall election could further delay plans to open the Canada-U.S. border, which has been closed to most traffic since the spring of 2020. 

While the feds recently loosed some restrictions for Canadian citizens and permanent residents looking to cross the border back into Canada, strict rules prohibiting non-essential trips remain in place until at least July 21. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to say when travel between the countries would resume.

“We all know what an election means – it means a pause on government activity,” Beatty said. “We need that (border reopening) plan today – not after an election.”

Meanwhile, Beatty questioned why the industry hasn’t been allowed to completely reopen even though nearly half of all Ottawans aged 12 and up have now been fully vaccinated and 80 per cent have received at least one dose. 

“What’s tragic here is that there’s no need to inflict such damage on the local economy,” he said. 

"It will take us years to recover. There’s just no excuse for it."

Wilderness Tours founder Joe Kowalski said his company – which offers whitewater rafting excursions on the Ottawa River as well as jetboating trips in Quebec and on both sides of the border in Niagara Falls – lost $7 million last year.

Kowalski, who has operated the business since the 1970s, said he and his partners haven’t collected a paycheque in 16 months in an effort to conserve cash and keep their employees on the payroll.

“No one has suffered more than our organization and our industry,” he said. “It will take us years to recover. There’s just no excuse for it. It’s a travesty.”

Jamie Kwong, the executive director of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, said the city’s arts and culture sector took a $220-million hit in 2020 as the pandemic put a halt to all live performances. 

Several live music venues in the capital have already closed their doors for good, Kwong said, adding she fears more shutdowns are on the way if restrictions aren’t lifted soon.

“Without a clear plan in place for reopening and the absence of international travellers, it could take another year or longer for our industry to rebound,” she said. “This has knock-on effects for our entire economy.”

Ross Meredith, the general manager of the Westin Ottawa and Delta Hotels by Marriott in the capital, said his sector has been “totally devastated by COVID,” adding a rebound in business and convention traffic “remains many months away.”

Thursday’s news conference follows the provincial government’s announcement earlier this week that it’s giving Ottawa Tourism and the Shaw Centre a total of $8 million to help the local industry recover.