Calgary has a bustling tourism and travel industry, but as COVID-19 continues to spread, the pandemic is proving to be a threat to the sector’s bottom line – especially with the busy summer season coming up. And now businesses are questioning how they’ll be able to make ends meet.

Calgary boasts a growing downtown core with many revered restaurants, green spaces like Princess Island Park, attractions such as the world-famous Calgary Stampede, and to top it off, the nearby Rocky Mountains which hold countless adventures for the curious traveler.

Attractions like these are one of the reasons that nearly eight million people visited the city last year, as found in a report issued by Tourism Calgary. 

The report stated that those eight million people are an important factor in the city’s economy through supporting jobs in multiple industries and pumping $2 billion into the city’s economy yearly.

So, what happens when that important revenue stream dries up?

Unfortunately, that answer may soon be answered as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt everyday life and many important industries the economy relies on.

To date Canada has totaled over 8,500 cases of coronavirus, resulting in over 100 deaths. This has prompted all the provinces and territories to declare a public health emergency, closing many public places, canceling events and encouraging everyone to stay at home.

To further enforce the severity of the issue, on March 16 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Canadian government would be closing Canadian borders to international travelers in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

This has impacted essentially all businesses in the country – from retail to transportation. However, the travel and tourism industry is especially vulnerable as it relies heavily on tourists going in and out of the country to generate revenue. 

Judy Uwiera, the CEO of Calgary Walking and Bus Tours, falls into the group that is vulnerable to the societal effects of COVID-19.

“The tourism industry is on hold at the moment. With the borders closed and no one able to get into Canada, there obviously isn’t going to be any tourists. Even after COVID-19 has leveled out, people are going to take a long time before they are comfortable with traveling the world again,” says Uwiera, whose business is focused on providing private walking and bus tours to well-known locations around the city.

“We want to keep the business going, but in order for that to happen you need tourists who are coming in and paying you and I think that’s what all the tour operators are looking at – how can we sustain our business and keep it going in the face of no tourists coming to the city? We’re all dealing with that issue and I don’t know if anyone has come up with an answer to that yet.”

Businesses that rely on tourists coming into the province aren’t the only ones taking a hit. Those within the travel and tourism industry who rely on outgoing tourists are also vulnerable to the pandemic. An example is travel agents, like Eva Lukowich, who has no business at the moment because of the pandemic. 

“I work on straight commission so that basically means I am going to be making zero money. In fact, I’m going backward right now. Some hotels or travel companies have allowed refunds to travelers, a lot hasn’t, but some have,” says Lukowich. “They pay us a small commission and it costs the traveler the same whether they booked it online or through a travel agent, so then I have to give that commission back if they give the client a refund. So, not only am I not making anything it’s going in the hole.”

The iconic sign outside the King Eddy hotel. Established in 1905 and recently revitalized in 2018, it is a well-known music venue in the city. Photo by Ethan Ward 

Because of struggles like these, some businesses are taking difficult measures to deal with this sudden loss of income. Tony Pietromonaco, the CEO of Round the Block Tours, is one of those business owners.

“Right now, everything is shut down. Nothing is going on. There are no tours. With any of the ones that we had scheduled are now being canceled by the people who booked them or by me personally, to ensure that my staff and anyone riding with them remains safe,” Pietromonaco says. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to lay off all my staff, which they’re pretty understanding about.”

What’s more, is that the timing couldn’t be worse for COVID-19 to hit the tourism industry. Although the winter season does generate some revenue, the summer is where the most profit is made. If this crisis lasts for several more months into the summer – which it is expected to – then that crucial season will be completely lost.

“If things don’t start to change by the end of May or early June the entire 2020 season would be at risk. Equipment is sitting idle and we’re still making payments on leases. The prognosis doesn’t look good – it doesn’t look good at all,” says Pietromonaco.  

However, there are some small ways where people are coming together to get through this.

“I made a phone call to one of my colleagues, who I’ve been working together with for the last couple of years, and we’re going to see if we can get together with some of the other small operators once this starts petering down to see if there’s some way we can help each other out to get through this year,” Pietromonaco says. “In the past, if one of us didn’t have enough people for a specific tour then I would suggest to those people to go with another operator who does have enough people to go on a tour. That way some of us will at least be able to have a bit of the pie.”

Those solutions depend upon tourists being present, however. It also leads to the question of how long it will take tourists coming in and out of the province to feel comfortable about traveling again. Even after COVID-19 is somewhat contained, the fear of sickness may deter many from traveling, prolonging the situation travel companies find themselves in.

Despite this, Pietromonaco and Uwiera are trying to remain optimistic in these uncertain times.

“I’m hoping we’ll still be around,” Uwiera says with a laugh. “I think that’s the question every tour operator has on their mind at the moment. Can we sustain our business and still be here next year?”

“I’m trying to be optimistic and I’m trying to say yes,” says Pietromonaco. “However, trying to be as optimistic as possible, if things don’t turn around by June, it’s going to be a very rough road for a lot of us going forward.” 

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Editor: Nathan Woolridge | nwoolridge@cjournal.ca