12/03/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST

Tories Have Pushed Canadian Tourism Off the Map

This week hundreds of delegates from Canada's travel and tourism industries will converge in Ottawa for the 2013 Canadian Tourism Congress. The Congress is an opportunity to showcase the Canadian tourism industry's contribution to our economy and its role in shaping Canada's international reputation as a premier tourist destination.

It culminates in the annual Canadian Tourism Awards which honour our country's most exemplary industry innovators for their achievements in spheres including cultural tourism, sustainable tourism and social media initiatives.

Globally, travel and tourism is among the highest performing sectors of the world economy. It outpaces other segments of the global economy, experiences annual average growth of 4 per cent and generates over $1 trillion in annual revenue.

While many Canadians might not realize it, Canada's travel and tourism industry is an important driver of economic growth in our country and consistently delivers positive GDP and wage growth.

In 2012 Canada's travel and tourism industry generated $84.4 billion in economic activity, resulting in $9.6 billion in federal government revenue. Not only does Canada's travel and tourism industry stimulate economic growth, the sector is also one of Canada's leading job creators, employing 600,000 people across every region of our country. These jobs represent a larger share of employment than Canada's oil and gas sector, underscoring just how vital this industry is for the Canadian economy.

Despite the importance of travel and tourism to the Canadian economy, the Conservative government's failure to show leadership in this area has created serious challenges for the sector over the past decade. Figures from this period bear witness to these challenges and underscore the need for a strong federal role in the promotion of Canada as a premier international tourist destination. The challenges the sector is facing are so stark that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has ranked the lack of support for our tourism industry as one of the top ten barriers to the competitiveness of the Canadian economy.

For instance, in terms of international tourist arrivals, Canada dropped from 7th globally with 20.1 million arrivals in 2002 to 16th with 16.3 million arrivals in 2012. This leaves Canada short of 2002 levels by a staggering 3.8 million visitors.

Some might point to the events of September 11, 2001 and the ongoing economic downturn as explanations for this decline. However, the reality is that Canada is one of only five countries to experience a drop in arrivals in the last 10 years, and is one of only two that have seen a double-digit decline.

To put the significance of this decline in further context, one must consider the notion of Canada as a trading nation. The assumption here is that increased trade linkages will drive future economic growth, particularly in areas where Canadian companies are leaders in their respective field. Here too, the Canadian travel and tourism industry is a vital cog in the wheel, requiring the necessary grease to keep the engine churning. However, at $17.3 billion in 2012, Canada's travel deficit weighs heavily on our economy, with this international travel imbalance accounting for approximately a third of our overall trade deficit.

Given these disturbing figures, Federal Tourism Minister Maxime Bernier's silence is startling. In fact, the only time the Minister has been vocal is when he takes to the media to brag about his success at slashing the budget of the Canada Tourism Commission, an organization whose sole mandate is to promote the interests of and help grow this vital sector of the Canadian economy.

Under Bernier's watch, Canada has cut its tourism marketing budget by 20 per cent forcing the Canada Tourism Commission to abandon advertising initiatives in lucrative markets like the United States. Meanwhile, all of Canada's major competitors are increasing investments in foreign tourism marketing to lure the growing volume of international tourists to their countries through unified branding exercises.

This failure to appeal to international travellers through modern, targeted advertising, promotion, and branding exercises is negatively impacting both the industry itself and the Canadian economy more broadly. With the decline of international visitors, Canada is losing an opportunity to leverage tourism into broader investments and business partnerships.

By cutting the budget of the Canada Tourism Commission, the Conservatives are moving Canada in the wrong direction. Industry analysts agree that the Conservative Government's continued lack of leadership in promoting tourism at home and abroad is needlessly damaging what was once a good news story for the Canadian economy.

On the eve of the 2013 Canadian Tourism Congress, it would be wise for Minister Bernier to reconsider his ill-advised cuts to the Canadian Tourism Commission; recognize the sizable return on investment which these monies create for Canada's travel and tourism industry and the broader economy; and the role the Canada Tourism Commission plays in shaping Canada's reputation as a premier tourist destination abroad.

Moreover, if the Conservative government is looking for practical ways to return to balanced budgets moving forward, it they should consider that even if it were doubled or tripled, the marketing budget of the Canadian Tourism Commission would represent only a small part of the revenues lost by the federal government due to the decline in international visitors over the last 13 years.

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