Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Sarah Kirby Yung, Vancouver city councilor and former tourism industry executive.
The news at the end of last week that fully vaccinated Canadians will not be required to provide a negative COVID-19 test upon returning from cross-border trips of 72 hours or less is more than welcome news for tourism. It’s a big step towards getting lives back to normal after the seemingly endless challenges of the pandemic.
Fully vaccinated Canadians have already been able to enter the United States for pleasure travel by land since early November. And on the US side, free drive-thru PCR tests – available at Washington state pharmacies such as Walgreens – mean relatively smooth cross-border traffic can now resume, a boon to tourism industries in British Columbia and across the country. Washington State.
But a threat hangs over the full recovery of our local Vancouver tourism industry as the world slowly emerges from the strains of the pandemic. A critical shortage of hotel rooms threatens the continued vitality of the industry.
Over the past 15 years, the number of hotel rooms in Vancouver has declined due to several overlapping factors, including hotel closures and conversions to residential uses, the land economy (and the high cost of operation of hotels) that make the construction of new self-contained properties financially unsustainable, as well as geographically limited zoning restrictions for hotel uses. Added to these significant challenges is the recent trend of governments to buy hotels for use as social housing. and homeless shelters through programs like the Federal Rapid Housing Initiative.
Destination Vancouver published a study in late 2019 warning that Vancouver was at risk of losing its competitive advantage as a tourist destination due to declining hotel rooms. This shortage of rooms – based on tourism levels before the pandemic – would amount to $ 2.646 billion in lost economic impact in Vancouver over 10 years, more than 22,000 jobs lost and $ 355 million in lost tax revenue.
The inevitable upward pressure exerted on the market by the loss of hotel supply has resulted in an average rate per night which remains consistently among the highest in Canada. If this trend continues, it means that only wealthy travelers will be able to visit the city. It also means that Vancouver is becoming less competitive in offers for conferences, major sporting events and leisure group travel due to room costs that are not competitive, or simply because there is not enough. of rooms to host these events and meet demand.
Tourism is an important part of the regional economies of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver. It contributes about $ 4.8 billion a year to the economy and, before the pandemic, it supported more than 70,000 full-time jobs. In order to maintain these jobs and the strength of the economic activity that results from tourism, an adequate supply of hotel rooms and accommodation for visitors is essential.
The question is how and where Vancouver can meet the need for a renewed supply of hotels and an inventory of hotel rooms. One solution is a modernized zoning policy that better allows for multiple uses in a single building, such as a commercial office and hotel or residential rental and hotel, or on a development site. The only new hotels built in Vancouver in recent years that were economically viable were resorts and mixed strata downtown.
Another solution to alleviating the shortage of hotel rooms in the city is to expand the city’s provisional hotel zoning policy by expanding the geographic area covered by the policy and opening up new areas around the city for the hotel development and traveler accommodation.
The good news here is that Vancouver City Council has the jurisdictional tools to help stem the decline in the city’s hotel room stock and ensure our vital tourism industry is able to realize its full economic potential for the city. and the region.
The employment and economy land review work currently underway at City Hall, which aims to develop a long-term land use policy plan to ensure we have an appropriate supply of land for businesses and jobs to support the future growth of our economy is a key component in addressing the hotel room shortage, as is the Broadway planning process.
The City has tools it can use, but more flexible policies and approaches will require the support and political will of Council. If we fail to demonstrate the leadership necessary to sustain our tourism sector and create the conditions for its resilience and success, we risk losing tourism’s vital contribution to our city’s economic strength and ability to create. jobs. For me, this is not an option.
As we move towards the post-pandemic reconstruction and re-imagining of our city and region, it is incumbent on local governments such as the City of Vancouver to ensure that enabling policies are in place to prepare for our post-pandemic future. COVID-19. The tourism industry, the economic health of our city and the jobs that depend on it are things we simply cannot afford to lose.