COVID-19 makes for 'unprecedented times' in Sask. tourism industry

Saskatchewan's tourism industry is going to take a hit in 2020. 

The border between the United States and Canada has been closed to non-essential travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer is recommending everyone limit or avoid non-essential travel. 

Tourism Saskatchewan CEO Mary Taylor-Ash said that in a normal year, the tourism industry contributes about $2 billion into the provincial economy and represents more than 71,000 jobs at about 3,200 different businesses and organizations. 

This year, groups that represent the tourism industry in Saskatchewan and across Canada are forecasting a grim year, she said.

"It's a very concerning situation in terms of the impact [COVID-19 has] had." Taylor-Ash said. 

"Destination Canada predicts a loss in Canada between $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion to our tourism industry."

Some organizations tied to Tourism Saskatchewan, like the Western Development Museum and the RCMP Heritage Centre, recently closed indefinitely due to COVID-19. Evraz Place, operated by the Regina Exhibition Association Ltd., was closed earlier this month for the same reason.

Taylor-Ash said the Tourism Industry Association of Canada is forecasting 778,000 job losses in the sector.

She said many of the businesses Tourism Saskatchewan represents are small and mid-sized businesses. Some have already had to close their doors. Others are staying open, but operating at a severely reduced capacity. 

The times are truly unprecedented, she said.

"Many of our hotels are reporting single-digit occupancy," Taylor-Ash said. 

"I've been in the tourism business in a couple of provinces for over 30 years and I've never seen anything like this."

She said a lot of effort is being put into ensuring organizations are well-positioned for when travel restrictions are lessened.

Right now the industry is trying to get a "fuller, more robust" understanding of the impact of COVID-19, she said. That knowledge will help it move along and try and develop a recovery plan.

Bleak prospects for outfitting

The closure of the border to non-essential travel could put outfitting businesses in jeopardy.

Roy Anderson, acting CEO of the Saskatchewan Commission of Professional Outfitters, said outfitting is an export industry and a large percentage of the province's clientele are American.

"If they're not able to get here … that means that the potential for outfitters to run their businesses during this period is pretty straightforward: they're not going to have any clients," Anderson said.

He said that in a normal year the outfitting industry contributes about $129 million to Saskatchewan's tourism industry, according to a study commissioned by the organization a few years ago.

Anderson's organization, partnering with the Canadian Federation of Outfitters Association, recently conducted a survey of outfitters across the country and of 131 outfitters in Saskatchewan.

Anderson said nearly 50 per cent of respondents forecasted about 75 per cent of their annual revenue was already in jeopardy and nearly 50 per cent of respondents feel the risk of losing a season is high.

About a third of respondents said all of their staff would have to be hired later — or not at all.

Anderson said the outfitting industry spans the entire province — a majority of the game bird outfitting is done in the south, while big game and angling outfitters operate in the north — and represents about 2,000 jobs.

"Not only is that a significant slice of the economy here in the province, it's highly relevant to employment activity in the north," he said.