I had an epiphany this week. A lightbulb moment of clarity when I was beyond frustrated with the total lack of political understanding of the incredible importance our industry plays as an economic driver, employer and creator of pride of place. As it turns out, the businesses of this industry are their own worst enemy, and that is because they continue to thrive IN SPITE of an absence of increasing, tangible, coordinated support from their local, regional, provincial, and federal governments. But, could you imagine how much stronger the economy would be if each of those levels of government invested in the continual development and support of projects/businesses that grew the visitor economy?
Now, I am not saying that there isn’t any support for stakeholders and projects that support the visitor economy. Our own organization, Central Counties Tourism, which is a support system for you to develop and grow the visitor economy, is funded by the provincial government, so some ongoing investments are being made. However, several years ago the province cut our budget by 20% and it has been flat ever since, even though more and more of you are relying on us to help you build your capacity. We are trying to do three times as much for 20% less. I am also hearing the same thing from municipal/regional staff and stakeholders about their municipal and regional policy makers.
Perhaps it is just the structure of government to be reactionary rather than proactive. Banks in trouble? Bailout. Car industry failing? Bailout. COVID-19 shuttering the hospitality and entertainment industries? Bailout.
Government support for our industry was never greater than during COVID-19, yet here we are only months after we turned the corner and I am already seeing signs that support is going back to status quo or even decreasing. What absolutely boggles my mind is the utter and complete dismissal, by politicians, regarding the importance of all of the businesses that support the visitor economy and the visitor economy itself as an economic juggernaut. Here are just a few examples:
- In 2022, the economic impact from people who traveled more than 60kms each way and spent at least one night in York, Durham or Headwaters regions was more than $3,000,000,000. Yes, that is billion.
- 35% of all businesses in Durham Region support the visitor economy
- 30% of all employees in Durham Region are employed in businesses that support the visitor economy
- In the majority of downtowns within the region, anywhere from 13-18% of unique visitors travel more than 40kms one way to spend their money there
- In the northern communities, that number jumps as high as 25%
- The $8M invested by the Government of Canada for the Tourism Relief Fund managed by CCT resulted in over $14M in tax revenue in the first year alone
- It also resulted in $23M in private investment and close to 100 permanent fulltime jobs
If my personal investments did half as well as the ROI on tourism development, growth, and support investments do for the various levels of government, I would have retired years ago. So, how is it that the elected officials at all levels barely give the visitor economy a second thought? Are their budgets, including salaries, not directly correlated to tax? Property tax, income tax, business taxes and levies? Running a municipality, region or province takes a lot of money – tax money. We keep proving time and again that supporting the development and growth of the visitor economy is an investment, not an expense. And perhaps that is where everything falls apart. Could it be that all levels of government are too worried about being reactionary to the crisis of the day to be able to make continual investment in a sustainable visitor economy? One that creates vibrant downtowns, attracting more visitors – some of whom will become proud residents – and growing a critical workforce to attract even more businesses. What am I missing here?
And yet, as Jack at Old Flame Brewing Co. expands in Scugog through the acquisition of Two Blokes Cidery and The Port Cheese Co. in historic downtown Port Perry, where he plans to begin offering evening pairings and events for locals and visitors alike (and probably will require a few new staff!), the Region of Durham has eliminated the permanent full time Tourism Manager position and handed that responsibility off to the full time Marketing Manager. Support for tourism, according to their official plan, will now be mainly social media and their visitor guide – not support for development and growth. But Jack will be successful IN SPITE of these changes, and many of the other businesses in Scugog will benefit because of it.
Canada’s Wonderland, one of the biggest attractions from an attendance standpoint in all of Canada, continues to invest year after and thrives IN SPITE of York Region having no dedicated tourism staff and a total tourism budget, for the entire region, of $75,000, and IN SPITE of the Tourism Vaughan Corporation Board of Directors (the majority of which are council members) deciding to spend Municipal Accommodation Tax dollars, that are supposed to be dedicated to tourism development and support, on flowers for medians on several of Vaughan’s large arteries. The amount of tax revenue generated by Wonderland and all of the area businesses that rely on the millions of people who visit York Region because of the park is staggering. But York Region’s Economic Development Strategy, which is thankfully due for a refresh by the end of this year, essentially says that they completely divested in tourism when the RTO’s were formed. Prior to that, York Region had a full team dedicated to the development, support and growth of the visitor economy.
Our municipalities have had to (or are going to have to) try to support the businesses that make their communities shine. The staff willingness is there and, right across this great region, there have been incremental investments. A part time staff here. Some investment in events there. But the municipal staff have to fight tooth and nail for every cent they can get, which makes no sense to me because it is NOT an expense. If they worked with stakeholders to make the municipality and region a place that people want to visit, there would be less vacant business properties, more employees and, most importantly, more tax revenue and growing budgets!
So, what are we going to do about it? I think we have to educate our municipal and regional councillors on the importance your business, and those around you, plays on their ability to get things done. They need to understand that having visitors spending money in their communities is a must have, because without them, your business or your neighbour’s business may not survive. I have done this before, presenting to council on numerous occasions in prior years, but when it is only me talking, I think that what I say falls on deaf ears. And I don’t blame them. I am a figure head with no skin in the game in your community. To get them to listen, what I would like to do is bring one or two community stakeholders to each municipal meeting to share a few words about how having visitors in their town helps businesses stay open and pay their taxes. Wouldn’t it be great to have each speaker state their name and announce how much property tax they paid last year (for their business and even home if they live in town too).
We need to change the conversation. The word “tourism” has to leave our vocabulary when speaking with politicians. You may have noticed that I have purposely used the term visitor economy throughout this soapbox moment. The focus has to be on the economic benefit of welcoming visitors first, and the pride of place a vibrant community creates, second. Those are the two main things that your business and all of the businesses that support the visitor economy bring to a community. Financial health. Community Pride. Neither of those two things happen just through social media and marketing.
Every department within a municipality should be looking at their priorities and projects through the eyes of a visitor. Building a new road? Wouldn’t a bike lane be nice. Planning a new recreation complex? How about adding seating and lights so the local sports associations can host tournaments that bring in lots of new visitors. In fact, I was talking with someone recently who was lamenting that perhaps one of the biggest mistakes made by the industry was pushing for its own ministry at the provincial and federal levels. If you look at growing the industry for the purpose of generating more tax revenue (and in the process creating new jobs and vibrant communities), maybe it would have been better to have a multi-ministerial focused committee to make investment decisions that result in a positive ROI from the visitor economy. But that is another soapbox…
If you have made it to here and you think we are on the right track in terms of our idea about changing the conversation with our elected officials, I would love to hear from you. We have a lot of municipalities within the borders of Central Counties and I would love it if you would stand with me when we speak to your local council. Also, please feel free to forward this to others in your network who may also be interested in telling their story to your councillors. In addition to doing a presentation to the council, we will be putting out a pre- or post-presentation press release for your local news outlets. Who knows, maybe if we do enough of them, the story could get picked up at a regional or even the provincial level. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, thanks for doing what you do to make our region awesome!