Alberta Tourism braces for down year

A three-year bonanza for tourism in Alberta is grinding to a halt as the recession and a major slump in the province’s energy sector take a bite out of hotel and tour revenues.

EDMONTON — A three-year bonanza for tourism in Alberta is grinding to a halt as the recession and a major slump in the province’s energy sector take a bite out of hotel and tour revenues.

Tourism numbers for the first quarter are already off compared with last year at this time, said Bob Scott, a senior official with Alberta’s Tourism Department. And fewer travellers are expected from both Japan and the United States this year.

“The outlook is uncertain,” he said on the eve of the long weekend that kicks off the warm weather travel season in Canada.

It’s the second major downtown in tourism in recent years, but it’s not nearly as bad as 2003, when the province’s tourism revenue took a $1-billion hit as visitors were scared off by mad cow disease, West Nile virus and a SARS outbreak in Toronto.

Most tour operators and hotel owners have bounced back from that disaster, said Dave Kaiser, president of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association. But he expects 2009 will be another challenging year, mainly because of the world economic downturn.

“We’ve just come off a banner two or three years here where we were at almost record levels and we were the envy of everybody else,” he said. “What I’m hearing from a lot of tour groups is the numbers are really pared down significantly and some are even cancelling or looking for some pretty deep discounts.”

For tourists looking for a deal, Kaiser said he recently noted there are nearly 200 special offers on the Travel Alberta website — far more than usual.

A report on the outlook for hotel use in Alberta this year predicts that cancelled energy projects and a downturn in the forestry sector will cause many Albertans to spend less on vacations.

Another recent report taken from a survey of tourism operators also offers fairly grim news.

“The group tour sector is a casualty of the global economic slowdown,” says the report prepared by Brooks Jobbs and Associates.

“International tour visitors are staying at home or spending their vacation dollars on less expensive travel alternatives.”

Such group tours are vital to Jasper and Banff, said Kaiser.

“It is a big deal, particularly for our national parks,” he said. “They do depend on those groups to a large extent in the summer season. Certainly there it hurts.”

Beth Walters, western director for the tourism consulting firm PKF, said new passport requirements for travellers coming across the U.S. border also factor into declining visits to Alberta this year.

“That, plus the credit crunch in the U.S., is having an impact on the number of visitors from the United States,” said Walters. “That is a big factor for the Banff market, which has been strongly supported by American visitors.”

Tourism Alberta is the marketing agency for the province’s $5.6-billion tourism industry, which employs 111,000 people. The new Crown corporation operates on revenue from the province’s four per cent tax on hotel rooms.