Room taxes not the answer for what ails Canadian Tourism

It’s Déjà vu all over again as City Council considers the benefits of adding a Hotel Tax (okay call it a fee if you are on the pro side) as a way of adding more muscle to the destination marketing efforts of the local tourism industry.

But, the argument isn’t whether they (hotel taxes) are legal or fair, the argument should be – do they work? There have been numerous opinions as to the merits of such programs and an equal number that have opined the pitfalls. Sure, you can raise more funds (I like calling them taxes frankly) and sure you can likely pump out a lot more advertising and marketing schemes aimed at increasing tourism traffic to our area. But how does one address the well publicized inequities of such programs. What about the jurisdiction just across county lines that does not charge room taxes?  Level playing field? – not so much. Of greater concern is the American traveler who is in no way accustomed to the already high taxes and room rates of Canadian operators compared to that of the U.S. Will the addition of another 2%-3% negatively impact occupancy numbers? Especially now – probably.

And what about the associated players in this sector – the restaurants, entertainment and sports facilities, and beverage emporiums? Should they help to shoulder the added cost of a destination marketing fee? If you agree they should – exactly where does the line of beneficiaries stop anyway? Should we include food suppliers, beverage alcohol products, popcorn growers and oh yes, what about the trucking companies that deliver all that stuff.  Gets a bit ridiculous doesn’t it?!

Even if a room tax came to pass, who then would control the purse strings and allocate the money. Ah ha – but the City of course and ‘aye, there’s the rub’. Contributors to the fund would argue that they should have total control while you just know that the City would have something to say about that.

So why are we resorting to this type of tactic again?  It’s not because the industry isn’t worth it, indeed it is. And it’s not because we don’t have a very effective tourism marketing team already in place because we do. Sadly, it’s in reaction to our senior levels of government increasingly withdrawing from the race for precious tourist dollars.

According to the Discussion Paper, Restoring Canadian Tourism by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canada had been one of the world’s premier tourism locations for six decades running. In fact, just a decade ago, Canada was in the top 10 destinations in international arrivals but has slipped and has now fallen out of the top 20. Canada’s decline is not because it or London has suddenly become less beautiful, engaging or safe. Rather, Canada has failed to respond to changing realities. It has failed to respect the growing choices travellers have, and it has failed to fight for tourism’s future.

 Today, the industry contributes $84.8 billion to the economy and drives private sector growth and jobs in all regions of the country.

Surprisingly, tourism’s contribution to the GDP every year is worth more than agriculture, fisheries and forestry combined. Tourism is also one of Canada’s leading job creators. The industry directly employs more than 600,000 people across the country, a larger employment impact than oil and gas

It is also a sector that could contribute even more to the Canadian economy, given the right policy environment. The global market for tourism is growing at an astonishing rate, but Canada’s share is shrinking.

It would be easy to blame Canada’s tourism challenges on factors that are beyond its control, like the rise of the Canadian dollar, the U.S. recession and post-9/11 policies.

However, the reality is Canada has failed to respond to these challenges by addressing factors that are within its control, such as its layers of regulations, fees and taxes – its very cumbersome visitor visa system and its lack of investment in its national marketing initiatives.

Considering tourism is the largest service export in the country and is worth $17.3 billion a year in export revenue, it’s shocking to me that it doesn’t benefit from the same tax and regulatory support as other export industries. And when you look at what tourism contributes in taxation revenues to governments ($21.4 billion in 2011, nearly $10 billion to the feds alone) it’s hard to fathom why it gets so little in return.

Alarmingly, Canada’s share of this export sector continues to erode, dropping from 20.1 million visitors in 2002 to 6.3 million in 2012.  As a result we now have a $17.8 billion travel deficit which has ballooned by 736% in a decade, making it the country’s second highest deficit after manufacturing.

With this in mind, when our competitors are increasing their investment in tourism marketing initiatives, the CTC’s (Canadian Tourism Commission) budget was counter-intuitively cut by 20% to $58.8 million this year.

So what are some of the causes of this decline? Here’s just a few. Non-airline costs on passenger tickets represent more than 65% of the total ticket cost in Canada. Quite bizarrely in the developed world, only Canada requires users to pay the entire cost of the aviation system, including security, airport infrastructure and air traffic control, on top of the actual charges the airlines levy.

Compare this aviation cost structure to the U.S., our closest competition where aviation is considered an economic spark plug and is supported as such, making it, on average, 30% cheaper to fly to the U.S. than Canada. Tellingly, we are ranked first for airport infrastructure but 124th (out of 140) for overall price competitiveness. So while we have excellent flight frequency, choice and availability, flying in Canada comes at an exorbitant rate.

Case in point, the Canadian Airports Council estimates that almost 5 million Canadians drive to U.S. airports per year and that this cross-border leakage represents a loss of approximately 9,000 well-paying jobs in Canada, employment income loss of $511 million and tax revenue loss of $190 million.

As well, tourism and travel is the only export sector not “zero-rated” for GST, an anomaly worth almost half a billion dollars a year to industry players. And Canada is the only G8 country without a value-added tax (VAT) rebate. Go figure!

Provincial and municipal marketing programs can and do play a key role in attracting visitors. And, while a number of Canadian destinations conduct their own destination marketing initiatives, it’s the national marketing campaigns that are so critical.

Research has consistently demonstrated that travellers chose “Canada” first and then subsequentlydecide on province, region or specific destination. A lack of investment in national-level marketing cannot bereplaced by local/provincial or private marketing initiatives.

Memo to all levels of government: Fix the national tourism marketing inequities, fix the visa processing for inbound visitors, put Canada’s airline industry on a level playing field with the U.S., and change the tourism tax structure to match those of our other export sectors.  Do these things and there will be so much new revenue, municipalities won’t have to think about yet another room tax scenario.



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