Tourism businesses concerned as B.C. grant money remains unspent

Nicholas Pescod/CHEK News
Tourism companies like Harbour Air are worried that millions in B.C. aid remains unspent or unavailable to them while they are struggling financially during the pandemic.

B.C.’s tourism sector wants to know why the government has more than $230-million unspent in a major grant program when its businesses are pleading for more support during the pandemic.

Walt Judas, chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. said the province needs to figure out what’s gone wrong with its small and medium-sized business recovery grant program.

CHEK News reported Tuesday that only $65 million in grants have been awarded out of a $300 million fund, three months after applications opened. That leaves $235 million unused when some tourism operators are closing their doors and going out of business for lack of financial support.

“Clearly we have to figure out why that is,” said Judas.

It may be that small businesses were so unhappy with the rules placed on the fund when it opened in October they just wrote the whole grant program off, said Judas.

The original rules required businesses to have lost 50 per cent of their revenue recently, and have been open at least three years. Government eased those rules in December, lessening revenue loss to 30 per cent, operating time to 18 months and opening up applications to sole proprietors and seasonal businesses.

“The last thing we want is to leave money on the table that’s available for operators,” said Judas.

“At the same time, we want to work with government on potentially some refinements to the grant program that would allow more tourism businesses to qualify.

“We’e known since the start of the pandemic that these grants are absolutely necessary for many tourism operators to survive so we want to be sure that people have access and those grant monies are accounted for, the entire amount.”

Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon said he’s cautiously optimistic more businesses will apply to access the bulk of the funding before the program expires March 31. Businesses can get up to $30,000 in non-repayable funding, or up to $45,000 if they are tourism-dependent.

However, some of Greater Victoria’s largest tourism operators, who employ hundreds of people, aren’t eligible for the grants. The government set a cap of businesses with 142 employees and deemed any company larger than that ineligible.

Harbour Air, a fixture in Victoria’s inner harbour, called on the province Wednesday to do more to help companies like itself, which have too many employees to qualify a grant.

President Randy Wright said his company is a vital transportation service

“The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated company revenues at a pace that simple staff reductions and restructuring cannot compete with,” he said in a statement.

“The fixed costs, health and safety obligations and other non-negotiable expenses requires a team of over 149 employees and thereby excludes companies like Harbour Air from the BC Business Recovery Grant program.

“While we are optimistic about the future, 2021 will be another challenging year and the viability of the industry requires support. We are asking that a more holistic approach to the aid benefits be considered so businesses that are the biggest employers and thus the biggest contributors to the economy of British Columbia can get back up on their feet.”

Other companies ineligible include iconic tourism businesses like Butchart Gardens, which declined to comment Wednesday.

Kahlon said B.C. was hoping large businesses could rely on Ottawa for help. Federal economic development minister Melanie Joly told CHEK News her government will soon launch a low-interest loan program for large businesses that need help.

However, it’s becoming clear that’s not enough, said Kahlon.

“I know (Tourism Minister Melanie) Mark has been meeting with some of the bigger players in the sector, and the premier has as well, and we’re going to continue to engage with them,” he said.

“I know there are some federal programs available, but we will probably have to look at other ways of supporting them during what is a very difficult time.”

[email protected]

Rob ShawRob Shaw

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!