Travel advisors in Ontario should try and sell tourism experiences within their own province as an alternative to sending clients to all-inclusive sun destinations down south, says the province’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod.
Addressing media last Thursday (Oct. 7) at virtual press conference, where a $6 million-dollar campaign in support of Ontario’s tourism recovery was unveiled, Minister MacLeod urged the province’s travel trade to sell domestic experiences in the same manner in which they send Ontarians abroad.
“One of the things we talked about with the [Tourism Economic Recovery Ministerial Task Force] was building out itineraries – so rather than travel agents looking at how they can book travellers from Ontario into places like Cancun, or the Dominican Republic, or other places… [they would] find those travel itineraries here,” Minister MacLeod said.
Leaning on the idea that “Ontario is a world of experiences — all in one place,” Destination Ontario, the province’s tourism marketing organization, says it has spent the COVID-19 pandemic developing Ontario-based travel packages and itineraries, which can be viewed at DestinationOntario.com.
Lisa LaVecchia, president and CEO of Destination Ontario, said the organization has worked to “dial up and work with industry” to prepare and package different experiences.
“Itinerary planning is a big driving force of what we’ve been up to at Destination Ontario,” LaVecchia said on Thursday. “We encourage that work to be utilized when it can be.”
(Ontario's new "Rediscover the World of Ontario" campaign)
But it’s not that simple, says Orillia, ON-based travel advisor Judith Coates of the Travel Agent Next Door.
“Yes, Ontario (and Canada) has some amazing places to visit, but most Canadians feel confident to self-book or call these destinations directly,” said Coates, who is also a co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA).
Many tourism businesses in Ontario are represented by Resorts of Ontario, “which are themselves an agency,” Coates pointed out.
ACITA, which has spent the pandemic educating government officials about the unique needs of independent travel advisors, hears requests like this all the time, Coates said.
“We've been asked in several meetings, mainly with federal officials, why we don't just sell Canadian destinations and attractions to our clients,” Coates said. “That's a little difficult when you have a client who wants to go on a safari tour in Kenya and Botswana. Or cruise clients who are asking you to book them a southeast Asia cruise.”
“And I don't know of any destinations in Canada that have snorkeling tours in January.”
The clock is ticking
Ontario’s suggestion comes at a time when travel advisors across Canada face serious financial trouble as the pandemic, amplified by federal travel advisories, continues to batter travel sales and demand.
It’s a particularly turbulent time as the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) – the only federal aid program that most Canadian independent travel advisors could access – ends on Oct. 23.
In Ontario, two programs were launched earlier this year for the purpose of helping small businesses during the coronavirus crisis.
The Ontario Small Business Support Grant and Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant, at first, were viewed as lifelines that could help hard-hit travel agencies keep the lights on.
But as it turned out, many travel advisors in Ontario were unable to access those much-needed funds.
The Ontario Small Business Support Grant, for one, excluded agents from applying, but some were able to push through under the banner of "Personal Services.”
The ones who did qualify received a first instalment of a $10k grant, only later to be told that were not eligible for the money after all and that a second payment wouldn’t be issued.
The Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant presented similar obstacles.
In June, both ACITA and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) spoke out after it was discovered that independent travel agents were ineligible.
The issue, this time, was that Ontario took the position that only TICO-registered agencies were eligible for the funding, which did not cover independent advisors who are registered through their host agencies.
Shut out of tourism recovery
The Ontario Tourism Recovery Program (OTRP), instead, is aimed at supporting services such as inns and lodges, regional air routes, boat tours, ski centres, live performance venues, cinemas, drive-in theatres, and amusement and water parks.
PAX asked Minister MacLeod last week why Ontario’s travel advisors were not included in the province’s new tourism recovery program.
The Minister said the $100 million dollars is geared towards “resuscitating” attractions, noting how travel agents were offered with the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant and federal supports instead.
PAX pointed out to Minister MacLeod that many travel advisors in Ontario weren’t able to access those provincial grants.
“I want to make sure that everyone is pretty clear that we worked within the guidelines of what the auditor general would have expected,” MacLeod said in response, reiterating how only TICO-registered agencies were eligible (which, again, excluded those who operate via host agency).
Coates finds it “frustrating” that governments are still failing to understand that tourism includes travel advisors too.
“We are an important part of the infrastructure,” Coates said. “I think they fear that the travel we sell is taking tourism dollars out of the country. It is, in part, but it's also supporting Canadian airlines, tour operators, travel agencies and all the ancillary tourism-related businesses, like Park n’ Fly, airport hotels, airport retail and insurance companies.”
All-inclusives in Ontario?
Tim Hudak, Chair of Ontario’s Tourism Economic Recovery Ministerial Task Force, which launched in March 2021, said the province is focused “reducing the red tape and regulatory burden that comes from a bygone era,” such as easing alcohol restrictions in tourism.
Referencing the all-you-can-drink packages that typically come with stays at resorts in the Caribbean: “Why don’t we allow the same thing [at Ontario’s hotels and resorts]?” Hudak suggested last week.
“It’s these types of ideas that we think would be very attractive to tourists in our province, and outside of it, and offer new business opportunities for travel agents,” Hudak told PAX.
Ottawa, ON-based Nancy Wilson of Travel Only calls Ontario's suggestion a “very narrow-minded view.”
“It is so disappointing that they’ve tried to make this argument,” said Wilson, who is also a founding member of ACITA, “to turn the tables back on us, as opposed to recognizing their shortcomings in giving support to the entire sector."
“The Ontario government is pointing a finger at us, saying ‘Send your clients to Ontario and then your business won't need financial assistance,’ which is quite ludicrous and a deflection of their shortcoming,” she said.
Tiny Township, ON-based Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach, also an ACITA co-founder, says it is “simply unacceptable” for Ontario to exclude independent advisors from tourism recovery supports.
“To have absolutely no regard for the amount of funds we generate for not only Ontario but also for outgoing tourism businesses, suppliers and Canadian companies is completely short-sighted,” Slater said.