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Travelers on a B.C. Ferry approaching Bowen Island in September 2023. Photo: Marisa Sittheeamorn

B.C. tour operators still face challenges amid post-pandemic revenue boom

Tour operators in the province work against workforce shortages, the cost-of-living crisis, and unforeseen climate emergencies

By Marisa Sittheeamorn , in City , on November 7, 2023

Jenn Lau ventured to Tofino without a fixed itinerary last year. The 26-year-old project manager from Vancouver managed to visit major attractions on her own. Then she stumbled across a bear-watching tour on her last day in town.

With COVID-19 restrictions recently lifted, Lau seized the moment and decided to join in.

A few months prior, Lau wouldn’t have joined the tour.

“I was more worried about public safety. I went to the Okanagan, but I definitely stuck within my own bubble.”

A bear pictured walking along the coast on Vancouver Island during a bear-watching tour in April 2022. Photo: Jenn Lau

Lau’s hesitancy to join tour groups during the pandemic was not unique. A recent report from Statistics Canada detailing trends among tour operators in Canada demonstrates a significant dip in 2020 and 2021, before making a big bounce back in 2022. But, like Lau, customers are coming back.

For tour operators within B.C., annual operating revenues more than tripled from $165.3 million to $710.3 million between 2021 and 2022.

“The biggest difference was you go from 2021, when travel was essentially shut down, to 2022 in the spring when things opened again. That’s why you would have seen a jump,” said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

Despite signs of improvement, the B.C. tourism industry continues to face numerous challenges. Even with significant revenue growth, B.C. tour operators concluded 2022 with a 12-per-cent loss because of lingering problems.

“Challenges remain because many businesses incurred debt. China has not approved the opportunity for tour groups in large volumes to visit Canada, and there are ongoing challenges as it relates to having enough workforce and having enough trained people,” said Judas.

The industry needs young people who are willing to take entry-level jobs and build long-term careers in the tourism sector, he said.

The issue is that British Columbia and Canada more broadly does not have enough people to fulfill these roles. The worker shortages were an issue before and the pandemic has only amplified it, said Jenn Houtby-Ferguson, a professor in the tourism department at Vancouver Island University.

Crowds gather on the Capilano Suspension Bridge in August 2023. Photo: Paula Espinosa

However, the rising living costs in B.C. are making it more difficult for the province to attract and keep tourism personnel from overseas.

“We need to have enough affordable housing options to be able to accommodate all the workers that we can attract from different places,” said Judas.

On top of attracting new foreign talent, B.C. tour operators are also having to make adjustments for potential wildfires and flooding.

Operators need to create more flexible cancellation and rebooking policies and encourage travelers to have travel and trip interruption insurance, said Houtby-Ferguson.

“From an industry perspective, we need to continue to support operators with thoughtful information and we need to support the provincial government to make good decisions about travel restrictions so that they can be thoughtfully implemented and have the least impact while maintaining the maximum safety of the area for the individuals impacted.”

In spite of the challenges ahead, B.C. tour operators are optimistic about building back to pre-pandemic outcomes.

Tom Smith, the vice-president of marketing and sales at at Intrepid for North America, one of B.C.’s top-rated tour operators, suggested the growth increases within B.C. will continue into 2023.

“2022 was talked about as the revenge travel year, so we expected really high growth. But what’s been pleasing to see is that, in 2023, we’re on track with our profit goals for the year,” he said.