COVID-19 pandemic has created regional tourism hot spots as major cities suffer

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Restrictions on international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted many travel enthusiasts to explore local and regional tourist destinations. However, communities have been affected very differently from the increase in the number of local tourists.

In Canada, the impact on international travel due to COVID-19 was immediate, with a decrease of 614,000 international arrivals to Canada in March 2020. That was a 92% drop from 2019 – a loss that has yet to be recouped.

Monthly international tourist arrivals in 2019 and 2020.
Authors’ calculations based on Statistics Canada data

At the same time, travel restrictions have played a role in moving up to 20 million overseas leisure and vacation trips by Canadian residents to domestic destinations. The stimulation of domestic travel has been the heart of the federal government and provincial government strategies to limit losses in the tourism sector.

A graph shows the trips of Canadian residents to Canada and abroad by purpose of trip in 2019
Travel by Canadian residents in Canada and abroad by purpose of travel in 2019.
Authors’ calculations based on Statistics Canada data

The loss of international tourists

Canadians who chose to visit domestic destinations in the past year contributed to an increase in the share of domestic tourism in total tourism spending by 78.4% in 2019 to 92.7% in 2020. But the trips made by Canadians to Canada only partially offset the losses associated with international tourists, as tourism spending in Canada fell almost 50% in 2020 from 2019 levels.

However, not all destinations were affected in the same way. There has been variation in employment levels in the accommodation and food services industry in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver compared to other small and medium-sized cities in 2020. Some of these municipalities are located on the outskirts of large cities, while others are in more remote areas.

Change in employment in the accommodation and food services industry between January and September 2020
Change in employment in the accommodation and food services industry between January and September 2020.
Compilation of the authors using data from Statistics Canada

Large cities versus regional destinations

Canada’s largest cities, which are typically tourist destinations and major gateways for international visitors, have experienced drastic declines in tourists and tourism spending.

For example, Toronto lost $ 8.35 billion in 2020 due to cancellations of many tourism activities related to business events, festivals, conventions and conferences. The number of international visitors to Montreal in 2020 was down 94% from 2019, and the city experienced its lowest hotel occupancy rate on record of around 15%. In Ottawa, Hotel occupancy rates fell 70% during the pandemic, and the tourism sector lost almost half of the revenue generated in 2019.

Two people wearing masks walk on a street.
People walk the deserted streets of Old Montreal in November 2020.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / Ryan Remiorz

In contrast, several destinations outside major urban centers took advantage of the rise in domestic tourism to offset the loss of international tourists. However, not all of them have the same capacity to accommodate visitors during the pandemic.

Some destinations had sufficient capacity in terms of space, accommodation and services. This was the case for many places close to large cities which offer outdoor activities and have been able to ensure adequate management of tourist flows.

In Canada, destinations like Bromont in Quebec and Rouge National Urban Park in Ontario, which offer both summer and winter outdoor activities, have implemented specific measures to cope with the sharp increase in demand reported by tourist operators.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the world, including in France, Belgium and Switzerland, where regional tourist destinations attract more travelers than large cities.

Some regional destinations in Canada have been overwhelmed by too many visitors and have struggled to accommodate them without affecting the environment and the quality of life of local residents.

The problems have included: a significant increase in the number of motorists, causing congestion and parking problems; so many visitors that it was difficult to follow the preventive health measures COVID-19; and the saturation of public places. In Canada, it happened in Gaspésie and Rawdon in Quebec and Glen Morris, Gray Sauble, Niagara-on-the-lake and northern Bruce Peninsula in Ontario.

A photographer takes a photo of the sight in Gaspésie
A photographer captures the view in Forillon National Park, Gaspé, Quebec, in August 2016. The area was a popular national tourist destination during the pandemic.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / AP, Cal Woodward

Destinations in the United States, The United Kingdom, Scotland and France also struggled with too many tourists.

How to deal with tourists

As the next travel season approaches, governments can employ a variety of strategies tailored to geographic trends in COVID-19 tourism.

Some government interventions have already been implemented, and it is important that they continue even with the end of the pandemic in sight as vaccination efforts accelerate. Including government financial assistance programs for tourism operators to mitigate their loss of income and allow them to continue to operate.

These programs are vital for metropolitan destinations like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where the recorded economic losses were the highest. The assistance includes wage assistance, rent subsidies and assistance in accessing credit.

Governments should also continue to support the promotion of domestic tourism for a greater number of destinations so that popular hotspots don’t get overcrowded. Additional measures should also be put in place to deal with the risk of overflowing tourists in some destinations as the pandemic continues.

Riders and their horses ride through the colors of autumn
Riders and their horses ride through fall colors near Cremona, Alberta in September 2020. In parts of Canada, “leaf-watching” tourism is a major contributor to economic activity.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jeff McIntosh

With government support, cities should also develop strategies to establish acceptable limits on accommodation for tourists and visitors. Such measures would help preserve the environment and respect the quality of life of residents. This could mean, for example, setting a limit on the expansion of parking lots in certain commercial areas or on additional camping areas near tourist attractions.

To be effective, such measures require monitoring and control, and laws and regulations must be enforced, including fines.

The popularity of some tourist destinations during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought economic opportunities to many communities. These tourist hotspots can seize these opportunities while respecting the need to control the number of visitors. Efficient management of tourist flows is essential, especially when several regions aim to attract new permanent residents and new businesses.


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