Alberta outfitters decimated by COVID-19 restrictions, cost tourism industry billions.

WATCH ABOVE: Ongaro's Outdoor Outfitters owner Claudio Ongaro talks about the financial devastation of the ongoing COVID-19 closure of the Canadian-U.S. border and how reopening it won't help business until physical distancing rules are eased as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and associated travel restrictions and mass gathering bans, has hit tourism industries around the world hard, and Alberta is no exception.

In Canada, total tourism spending is predicted to drop between 35 and 59 per cent from 2019 — depending on whether the virus is contained or not — according to numbers by Destination Canada. The worse-case scenario sees spending fall to $42 billion in 2020, and 450,000 jobs supporting by tourism spending lost.

Before the pandemic, tourism in Alberta generated about $8.9 billion and employed 73,000 people, Travel Alberta told Global News.

“The visitor economy was in a very healthy position and on a path to continued growth,” said Claire Griffin, a spokesperson for Travel Alberta.

“The impact of COVID-19 has created the complete collapse of the global tourism industry.”

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Travel Alberta recently surveyed industry partners to get a better idea of how the pandemic is affecting them and their business. Certain areas of the tourism industry are being hit harder than others. For instance, segments that rely on international visitors — like hunting and outfitting — or venues that host conferences or large gatherings.

The Travel Alberta survey found:

  • Over two-thirds of businesses indicated they closed temporarily due to COVID-19
    • Most common for attractions (85 per cent), meetings/conference (78 per cent) and guided tours (73 per cent)
    • Three-quarters of seasonal operators (74 per cent) closed temporarily
  • Layoffs were most prevalent in accommodations (54 per cent), food and beverage services (64 per cent) and meetings/conference (75 per cent)
  • Reduced staff hours were most prevalent in accommodations (44 per cent), food and beverage services (53 per cent) and meetings/conference/wedding facilities (60 per cent)
    • 45 per cent of operators whose peak seasons are fall/winter have reduced staff hours as a result of COVID-19 compared to only 31 per cent of spring/summer operators
  • 44 per cent of accommodations, 47 per cent of food and beverage services and 56 per cent campground/RV parks have reduced their services
    • 50 per cent of all operators with more than 11 employees and one-third (38 per cent) of year-round operators have been forced to reduce their services
  • Roughly one-third of respondents noted their business is at moderate or extreme risk of closing permanently due to COVID-19

Generally, three-quarters of the $8.9 billion spent annually in Alberta comes from Canadian visitors, Travel Alberta said.

READ MORE: Alberta tour operators prepare for a year of losses

“Canadians spent $6.8 billion in Alberta last year,” Griffin said. “That number is very encouraging because it tells us that Canadians love Alberta. Albertans spent $4.8 billion travelling within their own province last year. International visitors spent $2.1 billion in Alberta last year and accounted for five per cent of total visitation to Alberta.”

However, international tourists spend more per visit than their regional counterparts. The five per cent of international visitors to Alberta made up for 24 per cent of total tourism spending in the province.

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“Domestic visitation is our greatest opportunity as we plan to rebuild our industry,” Griffin said.

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But that ratio isn’t true of all segments of the industry.

Alberta outfitters decimated

The Alberta Professional Outfitters Society estimates its economic contribution to Alberta is about $105 million annually, according to data from 2016.

The group said the industry also adds $58 million to GDP, creates 460 full-time positions — $24.4 million in wages, salaries and benefits — and $12.1 million in taxes.

Over 90 per cent of its business comes from clients who come from outside Canada, according to the APOS. About four per cent comes from other parts of Canada.

Black Dog Outfitters, a full service outfitter based in Tofield, Alta., estimates 98 per cent of its clientele is international and 90 per cent of that is American. Therefore, the border closures — especially between the U.S. and Canada — have been brutal on business.

“It’s hit us hard. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s so crazy,” owner Kyler Harms said.

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“Most of the problem is we host American hunters. With the borders being closed, it’s difficult to know we’re even going to have a season.”

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Black Dog specializes in bird hunting and waterfowl and typically offers three-day package tours that include firearms, ammunition, decoys, trailers, gear, personal guide and lodge accommodation.

Given the huge proportion of international guests, pivoting to attract regional customers is a difficult task.

“If a guy wants to go hunting in Alberta, he can just go,” Harms said. “You go out and just go hunting. Most guys that want to experience the Canadian, Alberta experience, come up from elsewhere because the shooting and style of hunting is not the same as anywhere else.

“If you’re a local, you just go hunt locally with your buddies… You don’t pay me $3,300 to stay at my lodge.”

An easement of travel restrictions would be the difference maker, Harms said.

“The border between the U.S. and Canada would save my company.”

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The company is still taking deposits for bookings but is in a holding pattern and is having to postpone tours.

“We’re just waiting for somebody to tell us we can go out and live our lives again,” Harms said. “It’s just really discouraging.”

Outdoor attractions

Travel Alberta says national parks are the province’s main attraction when it comes to tourism.

“The Rockies are Alberta’s greatest tourism draw,” Griffin said. “They are our ‘calling card’ and we leverage the interest there to highlight other experiences in cities, communities and regions across in the province.”

When it comes to spending by activity in Alberta, the biggest segment is outdoor activities (national, provincial, or nature parks, camping, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, hunting, golf).

The next largest segment is entertainment or cultural activity.

For example, The Calgary Stampede announced last year that the annual economic impact of its event was $540 million.

Edmonton summer festivals

Edmonton is known as festival city and the total year-round economic impact of those events is $38.4 million, according to Edmonton Tourism.

The summer festivals (including Soundtrack Music Festival, the Works Art and Design Festival, International Street Performers Festival, Taste of Edmonton, Edmonton Heritage Festival, Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Cariwest Festival, Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, and Kaleido Family Arts Festival) generate just over $36 million.

“We know there is a significant loss for this summer festival season,” said Tammy Forbes, a spokesperson for Edmonton Tourism.

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The winter festivals add another $2.4 million.

“We know U.S. travellers are also a significant market for Alberta, along with U.K. and Germany,” Forbes said.

That’s why the group is focusing on visitors closer to home.

“With travel restrictions in place, we know that local and regional visitors are going to be paramount to the industry and economic restart… As the situation changes, we will welcome more international visitors and guests to our city and our venues.”

Travel Alberta’s regional approach

In the same way, Travel Alberta will focus on a more regional target audience.

Its 2020-2022 Alberta (re)Bound Strategy is a three-phase approach — RESPOND, RESTART, REBUILD — to getting through the COVID-19 crisis, supporting the restart of Alberta’s tourism industry and rebuilding Alberta’s visitor economy to 2019 levels by 2023.

The latest push will “encourage Albertans to get out and experience their own province this summer, where and when it is responsible, in step with the provincial government’s relaunch strategy,” Griffin said.

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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