More help on the way for tourism operators, province says

·3 min read

Nova Scotia's business minister is apologizing for the way a $50-million fund directed to the largest tourism operators was announced, and he's pledging more help is coming soon.

"I probably should have been managing expectations and making sure that it wasn't as though this announcement was going to solve all their issues," said Geoff MacLellan. "So, that's probably a mistake on my part and my fault."

The government has faced blowback from tourism operators and industry representatives since news on Friday that $50 million in loan guarantees would only be available for the largest tourism operators in the province. Government officials estimate about 11 companies could qualify for the help.

MacLellan said he was concerned going into the announcement last week that the government would face a backlash. He said the aim throughout the pandemic has been to identify issues and address them as best as possible.

'That was my mistake'

While he stands by the loan guarantee program, MacLellan said he knows more support for the industry is required and that's in the works.

"This type of program [announced Friday] exists in other places and is valuable," he said.

"The difference is they announced the other supports at the same time. That was my mistake not recognizing that."

Tourism revenue for 2020 is on pace to come in around $900 million, well below the $2.6 billion in 2019. The industry has been crushed by travel restrictions, public health restrictions and people generally choosing to stay closer to home to avoid the risks associated with COVID-19.

Issmat Al-Akhali is one of many operators under pressure and frustrated with the province's response to date.

Al-Akhali operates Granville Hall, a 30-room accommodation site in downtown Halifax that caters to students during the school year, tourists in the summer and anyone else looking for a hostel-style space.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

The pandemic forced him to lay off his two employees and to find efficiencies wherever he could. Al-Akhali said he's extended himself as far as he can and been as patient as possible, but he and many others are running out of time.

"Placating the small business owners or medium business owners in this sector with promises of more discussions does not work anymore. We've been through this for months," he said.

"We're coming into the winter months, which is typically the hard period for tourism operators, let alone without the financial cushion that comes from summer bookings."

Government focused on property taxes

Al-Akhali said small and medium operators need something that will keep them alive for the next six months. That could be money to help them pay their bills or programs that will help address the needs of people to whom they owe money.

MacLellan said his department has tried to work as fast as possible and his immediate attention now is focused on concerns from operators related to property tax bills.

"That's happening now. It's going to happen quickly and we want to make sure that we get something back to the sector as soon as possible," he said.

"I certainly feel the urgency to get something done on their behalf."