Premier John Horgan says he’s working on a new financial aid package for major tourism operators who are facing a dire year without cruise ship traffic.
Horgan said Wednesday he’s asked his Tourism Minister Melanie Mark and his Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon to engage with the tourism sector to help craft a plan that can keep large tourist attractions alive during the pandemic.
He specifically singled out Butchart Gardens, which has stayed mostly open during the COVID-19 crisis but is currently on a temporary closure until next week.
“The tourism association has been meeting with Minister Mark and meeting with Minister Kahlon about how we can continue to help not just those small businesses, but large businesses like Butchart Gardens, who depend on a lot of foot traffic to employ a lot of people,” said Horgan.
“These major attractions are not eligible for some of the small business grants that we have on the table. We’re looking at how we can help these larger businesses that are almost solely dependent on international travellers and the visitor economy.
“I want to see that come back as quickly as possible, but I know the vast majority of British Columbians will disagree with that until such time as there’s evidence that the world, not just Washington State and people going to Peace Arch Park, but the world, has got their act together here.”
Butchart Gardens, like many large tourism-dependent businesses, does not qualify for the B.C. government’s $300 million grant program to small and medium-sized businesses because it has more than the 142 employees that the province set as a cutoff for eligibility.
Butchart has more than 200 employees, which swells to as many as 600 during its peak in a regular year.
Other companies not eligible include Wilson’s Transportation, which has been appealing to government for aid to prevent it from having to cancel routes on Vancouver Island. Major players like Harbour Air are also not eligible.
The business community has been calling on the Horgan government to relax the grant criteria so large businesses can qualify.
Only $16 million of the $300 million small grant program has actually been allocated, due to red tape and restrictive rules around eligibility.
The government could also create a new program for large tourism businesses. However, doing so might require new funding allocated in the next provincial budget, which has been delayed until mid-April.
The federal government has cancelled this year’s cruise ship season, postponing any large vessels docking in Canadian ports until February 2022.
Horgan said he understands the large economic impact that the cruise ship cancellation will have on Victoria businesses.
“I know that this is a big blow for Victoria, parts of Vancouver, and even up island and beyond, into Prince Rupert and Alaska,” he said.
“I’m confident, if you talk to the vast majority of people in Victoria, they would be hailing this decision. We are not comfortable, as a community, to welcome the world back to BC until the world gets their act together when it comes to COVID-19. Having assurances that thousands and thousands of people will be disgorging at Ogden Point and waving around a rapid test that may or may not be accurate is probably not going to meet the test of the vast majority of Victorians.
“I appreciate the disappointment of those who depend on the cruise ship industry, but we’re not at that stage yet.”