Tourism tightrope in Barrie with a need for visitors but not COVID

The city's visitor economy has dropped 50 per cent

Kathleen Trainor understands the balancing act that Tourism Barrie is facing.

The executive director juggles the economic impact to the city when visitors make Barrie their destination against concerns over travel and the spread of COVID-19.

According to Tourism Barrie, the city’s visitor economy is worth more than $140 million annually. In the past year, there has been a 50 per cent decline because of the pandemic.

A report by Destination Canada on Monday said the country’s tourism industry is facing a crisis greater than the combined impact of Sept. 11, 2001, the SARS outbreak and the global financial crisis.

Trainor said for places like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal that rely heavily on international travel, it’s a big deal. Barrie’s bread and butter from tourism is still a domestic market. Trainor said 50 per cent is corporate, 30 per cent leisure and the rest is sport tourism.

This doesn’t mean nerves aren’t jangled.

Corporate travel is a huge elephant in the room for Trainor.

“We’re sitting at about 50 per cent corporate travel. We don’t know how corporate travel will bounce back because that will probably be the biggest effect on tourism and overnight stays,” said Trainor.

She said the question being asked is whether business travellers will come to Barrie and stay in a hotel or if Zoom meetings will continue.

There was a significant uptick in so-called day-trippers to Barrie last summer and Trainor expects to see a repeat in 2021. These visits would often have been seen as a shot in the arm to the local economy, but during COVID times, there was blowback, and it’s an example of the balancing act the people at Tourism Barrie know only too well.

As pictures popped up on social media of crowds jamming Barrie’s waterfront, in particular Centennial Beach last June, city council passed a series of changes to its traffic and fee bylaws that bumped the hourly rate for parking along the lakeshore for non-residents to $10, up from $3. The daily rate that was $20 soared to $50. There was also a significant jump in the annual non-resident parking pass, though Springwater, Oro-Medonte and Essa residents were not included. Barrie residents who displayed a waterfront parking pass were exempt from the fees.

Nearby municipalities also implemented strategies to keep a lid on visitor traffic to area beaches last summer. The decision by Barrie and Orillia to jack parking fees for non-residents was publicly criticized by Premier Doug Ford.

With an uptick in daytime visitors to Barrie expected again this summer, Trainor said there is no economic impact if people are just going to come to the beach and bring their own food to picnic.

“We are trying to get people when they come to Barrie on a day trip to ensure they know what’s open and to drive them towards downtown Barrie and the retailers, so there is an economic impact to them coming.”

Tourism Barrie’s marketing strategy will continue to be hyper-local. The reach is places like Owen Sound and Orillia, rather than Toronto.

“We can’t stop people from coming to visit,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. It’s hard to know, because on one side of the coin you want to make sure your industry remains important and people stay there and can come back to a job. On the other hand, you don’t want to bring in infected people into your region.”

Phones have been ringing at Tourism Barrie through the winter months with people asking about ski, snowmobile and snowshoe opportunities.

With vaccines being rolled out at the same time health officials track COVID variants of concern, there are many unknowns for the local tourism sector and the people who make a living from it, either full or part time, even spin-off.

For example, there are approximately 850 people employed by the hotel sector in Barrie. During the lockdown in January and for most of February, hotel occupancy rates were barely double-digit. Pre-COVID, hotel occupancy rates in Barrie were high for the industry, with an average of about 68 per cent.

The lack of organized sports tournaments has also made a dent in Barrie’s tourist economy, and Trainor said they are really worried where that is going.

Toss in the uncertainty of corporate travel and an uptake in leisure travel, even if only daytrips, Trainor said Tourism Barrie will continue to push the need for visitors while toeing the line when it comes to public health.

“It all has to do with the residents and what the City of Barrie wants to do in terms of inviting other residents from other areas into Barrie, pre-everyone being vaccinated,” she said.