Toronto tourism insiders cautiously hope for 2010 rebound

Despite a soaring Canadian dollar, insiders are hopeful that the hospitality and tourism industry in Toronto is bouncing back from the depths of the 2008-09 recession.

For Duncan Ross, senior executive advisor, Major International Events and Special Programs for the city of Toronto, the booking of large cultural events serves as “the canary in the mine” for predicting the future health of tourism.

“In the past nine months we landed the G8, the International Indian Film Academy Awards for 2011, World Pride for 2014, and the Pan Am Games for 2015,” Ross said.

“This is all built on a base of cultural tourism such as TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) and Caribana that has stabilized, and recent expansions of the ROM and AGO,” Ross said.

Ross supported his view by citing six luxury hotels being built; for most of them construction has already started. He is also unconcerned about a stronger Canadian dollar boosting costs for international visitors.

“The recent increase in the dollar is not a huge factor… Toronto is not marketed as a bargain,” Ross said. “Tourism Toronto and the city have targeted higher-yield travellers with above average incomes seeking a cultural experience.”

Tourism Toronto, which markets Toronto to the wider world, is cautious in raising expectations for the upcoming visitor season. Spokesperson Cathy Riches said the bell weather for measuring tourism consists of measuring hotel occupancy rates. “It is not easy to count license plates,” she said.

February did show a solid four per cent increase in hotel occupancy rates over the same month last year, but it is generally a slow time of the year. She believes that the month of May should provide a clearer indication for the summer.

According to Rey de Guzman, in charge of tracking the number of visitors for the Toronto Zoo, out-of-province visitors rose to 12 per cent from 11 per cent over last year, though still lower than 16 per cent recorded in 2007.

The total volume of visitors at the zoo, however, increased over the past few years even amidst the recession. He believes that the recession may have actually helped zoo revenues.

“People stayed in the city and spent more time and money on local attractions,” de Guzman said.

According to Julie Christian, program coordinator for the Beaches International Jazz Festival (BIJF), the number of out-of-town visitors has increased over the past few years, from five to seven per cent of the estimated one-million music lovers who flock to the late July jazz-and-blues jam, a figure that has remained stable over the past five years.

According to festival tracking-data and feedback, about half BIJF’s out-of-town visitors stay with friends or relatives, thus hotel occupancy rates do not tell the whole story, adds Christian.

Still, based on traffic to its website, Christian is hopeful that more out-of-town music lovers will head to Toronto for this year’s 22nd edition of the festival: “Total hits on our website increased from 27-million last year to 30-million this year,” she said.

For Ross, the cooperation of both public and private sectors, working through Tourism Toronto, has been the key to the recovery since the setback of the SARS scare in 2003.