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B.C. struggling to regain pre-pandemic tourist levels

Restored flight routes, provincial marketing campaigns help lure visitors
Vancouver Airport Authority director of air service development Russell Atkinson helps airlines restore flight routes out of Vancouver International Airport

Despite tourism marketers’ best efforts, B.C. continues to attract fewer tourists than it did pre-pandemic.

An end to government travel restrictions, restored flight routes and marketing campaigns are helping the province increase its number of international visitors.

Some setbacks, however, may take a while to resolve.

In November – the most recent month for which data is available – B.C. attracted 214,936 foreign visitors who stayed at least one night, down 21.6 per cent from the 273,999 visitors who stayed at least one night in the same month in 2019. 

November is also a key month for comparison purposes because it was one month after Canada lifted COVID-19 testing requirements and ended its mandate that travellers use the ArriveCan app in order to enter the country. An end to those measures took some of the hassle out of flying into B.C. 

The drop in visits from some countries’ nationals, however, remains substantial.

In November 2019, for example, 12,370 mainland Chinese visitors entered Canada through B.C. entry points and spent more per capita – $2,021 – than did visitors from any other nation, according to B.C.’s tourism marketer, Destination British Columbia.

Contrast that with November 2022, when only 4,729 mainland Chinese visitors entered Canada through B.C. entry points. That is a 61.8-per-cent drop in the number of mainland Chinese visitors coming to B.C. in that month, compared with November 2019.

It may be a surprise that so many mainland Chinese nationals were even able to enter B.C. in that month, given that China still had some pandemic-related travel restrictions.

In addition, only three non-stop flights operated each week between mainland China and B.C. in November:
•one by Xiamen Air;
•one by Hainan Airlines; and
•one by Sichuan Airlines, according to Vancouver Airport Authority director of air service development, Russell Atkinson.

Pre-pandemic, eight airlines flew a total of 53 non-stop flights between mainland China and B.C. 

Air Canada now flies one weekly non-stop flight between Vancouver and mainland China, to Shanghai. 

The carriers that have yet to restart flights are:
•Air China;
•China Southern;
•China Eastern; and 
•Beijing Capital Airlines.

The Canadian government during the pandemic changed regulations to limit how many non-stop flights could operate between Canada and China, Atkinson said. 

Reinstating a bilateral agreement to raise the number of eligible non-stop flights between the two countries to pre-pandemic levels may be a challenge.

“Geopolitically, there are considerations,” Atkinson said.

Indeed, the Canada-China relationship deteriorated after Canada, in 2018, arrested wealthy Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. government. China then detained two Canadians in seeming retaliation, and in what the Canadian government saw as akin to a hostage taking.

Meng and the two hostages were released almost simultaneously in 2021, but the two countries’ relationship remained testy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping scolded Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in front of cameras at the November 2022 G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, for releasing details of a meeting. 

Recent reports that China meddled in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian federal elections have not helped the strained relations.

China on Feb. 6 started to allow its citizens to travel in groups to 20 designated countries, and then expanded that list of countries to 60 nations as of today. Canada is not yet on that list. 

U.S. is most important source of foreign visitors to B.C. 

Tourism marketers say the U.S. is the most important country for B.C. to focus on when looking to attract tourists.

More than 73 per cent of foreign visitors to B.C. in November were Americans – a greater share of overall foreign visitors, given that Americans in pre-pandemic November 2019 represented 70.2 per cent of foreign visitors to B.C. 

“The U.S., absolutely, is a really important market, and it is overnight visitation that is crucial for us, which is why we’re launching a campaign into Washington in California,” Maya Lange, Destination BC vice-president of global marketing, told BIV.

That marketing campaign, dubbed Indescribable, launched March 1, and includes 15-second videos featuring images of nature, recreation and food. A narration captures how hard it is to put B.C.’s splendour into words.

Lange said that the provincial destination marketer is not highlighting that the province is a good value destination, given the low loonie, because marketing B.C. as a cheap place to visit is a “race to the bottom, and that is not a message that globally that we want to promote.”

Others in the tourism sector, such as BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association CEO Ian Tostenson and Destination Vancouver CEO Royce Chwin, told BIV that they doubt a low Canadian dollar will be much of a motivation for Americans to visit because Americans tend not to keep track of exchange rates.

“Typically, the exchange rate doesn’t show up in the top three, four or five things that might motivate an American to plan a trip to Canada,” Chwin recently told BIV.

Destination BC’s new campaign features social influencers and digital programmatic advertising that shows scenic videos when people watch content on sites such as CNN. The advertising also plays on platforms such as YouTube, Lange said. 

It follows a campaign that targeted skiers in Washington and California between November and February.

While some traction has been achieved in getting Americans to venture north, the number of U.S. overnight visitors to B.C. in November was down 18.4 per cent, compared with November 2019. 

Atkinson said fewer flights is part of the reason why air travel from the U.S. to B.C. is down.

He said the number of seats on planes between U.S. destinations and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is down about nine per cent, between late October and late March, compared with the same time periods in 2019-20, which included a few weeks after the World Health Organization, on March 11, 2020, declared the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Part of the reason for the decline in U.S. visitors is fewer seats on flights between Vancouver and the New York City region.

JetBlue launched flights between YVR and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) last summer, but Air Canada is flying smaller planes on its flights to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), Atkinson said. Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific are no longer flying between Vancouver and New York, he added. 

Airlines have been adding new non-stop routes to the U.S. 

Air Canada, for example, launched non-stop flights to Miami on Dec. 17. It plans to launch three other routes out of Vancouver to U.S. destinations in the coming months. That includes flying three times per week to Austin, Texas, starting May 1, flying once daily to Anchorage, Alaska, starting May 1, and flying once daily to Boston, Massachusetts, starting June 17.

“With COVID-19, we had to retire some aircraft,” Air Canada’s managing director of sales planning and effectiveness, Timothy Liu, told BIV. “As we take delivery of additional aircraft, that’s where these opportunities will start coming up again.”

WestJet (TSX:WJA) last month released its summer schedule, which includes two new non-stop routes between the U.S. and Vancouver: Four times weekly to Atlanta, and twice weekly to Nashville.

Mexico and India send more visitors to B.C. than before the pandemic

While visits to B.C. are down from almost everywhere, India and Mexico are two countries that are sending more visitors to B.C. than pre-pandemic. 

The 12.5-per-cent increase in the number of Indian citizens entering Canada through B.C. ports in November, compared with the same month in 2019, comes thanks to daily non-stop flights from Air India.

The airline started flying to Vancouver twice per week non-stop from Delhi in August 2020. It bumped that up to three times per week in October 2021, and to daily in October.

These flights have taken the place of daily flights between Vancouver and Delhi that Air Canada suspended when the pandemic took hold. When Air Canada first launched those flights in 2016, on a thrice-weekly basis, they were the first-ever non-stop commercial flights between Vancouver and India.

Air Canada resumed flying its non-stop Delhi-Vancouver route between September 2020 and May 2021. It then took a pause and restarted the flights in September 2021.  When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Air Canada had to alter that route’s flight path so as not to fly over Russian territory, and it added a stopover in Dublin to refuel. It then suspended the route in March 2022.

For security reasons, Air Canada does not fly over Russian airspace, which is required to operate the route most efficiently. 

The Indian government has not condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine and maintains relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. India’s national carrier, Air India, is therefore allowed to fly its planes in Russian airspace between Delhi and Vancouver, Atkinson explained. 

The rise in Mexican visitors to Vancouver comes despite fewer non-stop weekly flights between Vancouver and Mexico City than there were pre-pandemic – 20 in November 2022, compared with 29 in November 2019. Air Canada and AeroMexico Airlines each fly the route with a slightly reduced frequency, compared with 2019. Interjet has yet to resume flights between the two cities, which it did six times per week pre-pandemic.

Most Mexican visitors that come to B.C. originate on those flights, Atkinson said. 

Multiple airlines fly varying numbers of flights per week out of YVR to Mexican sun destinations, such as Puerto Vallarta, but most passengers on those flights tend to be Canadian, he added.

Abbotsford International Airport general manager Parm Sidhu said ultra-low-cost carriers Swoop and Flair Airlines both fly regularly between his airport and Mexican sun destinations, such as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. 

Those flights often have many Mexicans, he said. 

“It’s not just Canadians going down and Canadians coming back,” he said. “You are seeing traffic come the other way as well.”

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