Canada's big cities need a path to reopen business travel

Piece co-signed by Michel Leblanc, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Bridgitte Anderson, President and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and Jan De Silva, President and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, and published in The Globle and Mail.

The government should be encouraging planners to book here before they take their money elsewhere.

Canada is on track to have one of the best COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world. This is good news. With a path to normalcy in sight, as we all start to receive our second shots, it’s imperative we ensure our economy gets its shot.

The reality for our country is that there is no economic recovery – or even a semblance of one – without bringing business travel back to Canada. Recent improvements, such as patios opening and the easing of restrictions on domestic travel, can give the illusion of a tourism recovery. But the huge visitor economy in major urban centres is driven by business travel, including large-scale events, conventions and major conferences.

Toronto, for example, welcomed 28 million visitors in 2019. The absence of such travel cost the local economy $8.35-billion in 2020. For Vancouver, that loss of the visitor economy cost $9.8-billion, while for Montreal it was $4.3-billion.

This is spending that can just as easily go elsewhere.

We cannot afford to be out of step with what is happening worldwide. This goes beyond talking about when or how to reopen the border with the U.S. It is about setting conditions for safely resuming international business travel, which supports trade, investment and talent attraction.

Work is advancing in major cities around the world to prepare for the safe resumption of such travel. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and World Health Organization, in recent weeks, have launched initiatives to promote safe travel and smart vaccination certificates. We are aware of more than 40 different digital health ID or immunization certificates under development. Governments in major markets are also preparing for travel bubbles that will permit less restrictive travel under certain conditions.

Canada needs to articulate a clear plan – a path to reopening – to enable business planners to start looking and booking here again. Clarity on protocols – such as vaccine credentials and documentation, rapid testing, ventilation mitigation and safe air travel corridors – is vital to create a line of sight on reopening. We need to visibly signal the conditions to be met for large meetings to resume, instilling confidence we know how to get there.

Interoperability – rules and standards across jurisdictions so people can connect the dots – is the key. And Canada must be part of it.

With our country on track to achieve some of the highest vaccination levels in the developed world, it is time to unscare the public, shifting the conversation away from the perils of international visitors to the safeguards being put in place to welcome them back.

Nobody is suggesting we reopen our borders irresponsibly or ease restrictions too soon. However, without a clear plan about what protocols and safeguards will be implemented – the conditions that, when met, open the doors to visitors – Canada’s recovery as the coronavirus recedes remains too uncertain. And it is precisely this uncertainty that could keep billions of dollars out of our economy.

What’s worse is that the clock is ticking. Each month we delay reopening represents a combined loss of $2.24-billion for our three largest cities.

After losing nearly every major event in 2020, almost all 2021 events slated for Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have been cancelled, and we are starting to lose events planned for 2022. As gateway urban centres, these economic losses reverberate across the country.

Large meetings and conventions are planned years in advance. After SARS in 2003, Toronto lost out on meetings in 2007 and 2008 because those events were booked in 2003 when no one was choosing Toronto. To prevent this from happening again, we need to immediately signal that Canada’s largest cities have plans in place to be safe and welcoming for international-scale events.

Canada cannot afford to be an outlier on this. The negative impact of the pandemic will go on for years if the rest of the world moves ahead without us.

We’re leading in vaccinations. Let’s not lose the visitor economy.

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