Photo courtesy of Derek Sutton of Unsplash

June 1, 2021

Wish you were here: Examining the pandemic’s impact on young workers in the tourism industry

By: Kathleen Charlebois

With the exception of healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the biggest impact on the tourism and hospitality industry. According to Ontario’s November 2020 budget, tourism saw a decline of 282,100 jobs between February and May of last year, a number which represents a 37 per cent decline in employment.

Young workers make up the largest segment of the tourism industry and have been hit particularly hard by the job losses. Beth Potter, CEO and president of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO), says that almost a quarter of Ontario’s nearly 400,000 jobs in the tourism sector are filled by people between the ages of 15 to 24.

“The impact of COVID-19 has meant that we’ve lost almost half of our workforce right now, or it has been displaced,” she says. “One would have to expect that the impact on the younger segment is significant.”

Many prominent large city events like the Toronto International Film Festival, Ottawa’s Winterlude and the Stratford Festival were forced to adapt. TIFF screened just 50 films both online and in limited physical screenings and drive-in events. The Stratford Festival launched a digital content subscription service as well as a free Shakespeare film festival, and Winterlude took its winter festivities online in February 2021.

Smaller cities and towns relying on tourism for their local economy also saw dramatic shifts in the sector. 

Young workers typically take up seasonal work during the summer, but Potter says data from 2020 shows businesses opted to give extra hours to existing staff rather than hire new employees.

The tourism department for the northwestern Ontario city of Kenora was a steady source of summer employment for Addyson Kasprick, 21, who says she worked there since graduating high school.

Changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant splitting her time between her work at the tourism department and a second job at the local recreation centre. Despite the loss in hours at her regular job, Kasprick still feels she was one of the more fortunate ones in her peer group.

“I had some friends that were able to work, but I had friends who weren’t [working] or really struggled to find work,” she says. “I was working and then I wasn’t. Then I was working [again]. For some of my friends, they had completely lost their jobs.”

According to information sourced from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, the industry generated $34.1 billion in receipts and also contributed $11.7 billion to federal, provincial and municipal tax bases in 2018.

Helena Devins, the special events and farmers’ market coordinator for the City of Kenora, saw the effects on the local level. She says in a normal year, the Kenora tourism department would hire around six or seven summer students by the May long weekend. In 2020, they were only able to bring on two students, who started in June.

“To put things in perspective, when looking at our tourism staff, we usually have 1,100 to 1,300 people [visiting] that first week of July,” she says. “[This year] we had about 300.”

Tourism makes up such a significant part of Kenora’s local economy that the population size of approximately 15,000 reliably doubles in the summer season due to seasonal residents visiting cottages. This figure doesn’t include visitors passing through the town for special events or staying out at hunting and fishing resorts.

The drop in visitor numbers in 2020 led to a drop in job numbers. Potter says that overall, “if you look at our jobs in comparison to all the jobs in the province and all of the jobs that have been lost because of the pandemic, one in four jobs lost is a tourism job.”

Looking ahead at 2021, she says if people can get through the current lockdown period and start preparing for the summer, the domestic tourism market will be similar to that of 2020.

After reviewing TIAO’s 2020 numbers, Potter says she anticipates that domestic travel will be down 19 per cent compared to 2019 levels and international travel will be down 23 per cent.

“Of course, there’s a lot riding on that,” she adds. “We’ve got to get the number [of COVID-19 cases] down. We’ve got to get the lockdowns lifted and we’ve got to get the borders opened.” 

The Ontario government consulted with Potter when putting together next year’s budget, which states it wants to make 2021 “The Year of the Ontario Staycation.” She is quoted in the budget stating that “to stay competitive in the most dynamic industry in the world and safeguard the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Ontarians, the tourism industry needs support to encourage Ontarians to travel within the province.” 

In that vein, the government says it is “exploring ways” to provide up to 20 per cent coverage for eligible tourism expenses. An amount of $150 million has been set aside for the initiative and updates on the support measure will be announced at a later date.

Other boosts to the tourism industry from the Ontario government include $1.5 million through the new Tourism Economic Development Recovery Fund and $100 million over two years for community tourism and cultural and sport organizations.

The government also announced in the November budget that it will provide $180 million to put toward training and job creation for workers in the hospitality and tourism industry and other sectors adversely affected by the pandemic. An additional $100 million of investments will go toward Employment Ontario for skills training and $59.5 million has been set aside for acquiring in-demand skills.

Past the numbers, however, Kasprick says many of her friends are concerned about how the holes in their resumes will impact their careers. In response, many are now relying on their post-secondary programs for qualifications in lieu of work experience.

“You’re kind of at that age where you’re trying to make that adjustment and you’re trying to find jobs that might give you a better opportunity to lean more toward whatever it is you’re working toward in school,” Kasprick says.

Her friends say they are “extremely worried” about the uncertain job market and Kasprick says some are “in the middle of their semester and are stressing out over what they’re going to do next year because they’re not sure if they’re going to have a job when they come home."

Potter knows eradicating the virus and helping the economy recover won’t happen instantaneously. She adds that it could take until 2024 or 2025 to return to pre-pandemic levels, but there’s reason for optimism. Although the tourism and hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit, it also will play a pivotal role in helping the economy recover, and Potter says young workers will have an important part to play in making that happen.

“Businesses are going to have to adapt,” says Potter. "They are not going to be able to necessarily operate at the status quo, and so fresh thinking and young minds and innovative ideas are going to be really important.”

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