Help wanted: prolonged pandemic deepens labour woes

More body blows ahead for B.C.’s battered service industry sectors

Even if reopened borders result in a surge in tourists this winter, hotels and ski hill operators may have a hard time finding front-line staff | Mike Crane/Tourism Whistler

Now that Canada is open again to U.S. and international travel and new vaccine passports are in effect, one would assume that B.C.’s beleaguered hospitality, tourism and recreation sectors could expect increased business this fall and winter.

But many of these businesses now face a different problem: a serious labour shortage.

Closing the borders to international travellers didn’t just stop tourists from coming – it stopped workers as well. So it may be just as well that the return of tourists this fall and winter is expected to be a trickle, not a surge, because the industry might not be able to handle a surge.

A response from Sea to Sky Gondola to an emailed query speaks volumes about just how bad the labour crunch is for these sectors: “Due to unprecedented staffing shortages, we require up to 72 hours to respond to your email, and we kindly ask you not to phone us or leave a voice mail.”

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park confirms it, too, is experiencing a “severe” staffing shortage. Attendance numbers at the park doubled in July and August, compared with the same period of 2020.

“With more open borders, we are experiencing increased numbers from the U.S.A., but it is too early to predict how other countries will be taking advantage of the open borders,” said the park’s communications director, Stacy Chala. “Like everyone in tourism and hospitality, we are experiencing a severe shortage of workers.”

The hospitality industry relies on students and temporary foreign workers – many of them young adults from Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. who work abroad – for front-line staff, many of whom come to Canada under a temporary foreign worker visa.

“With the pandemic, we saw a large percentage of our international employee base go home and then, with the borders closing, many of them not returning,” said Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler. “Whistler has definitely been experiencing a labour challenge. It’s been a crises for the tourism industry.

“You can imagine coming off of a pandemic, when many businesses are holding on by a thread to keep economically afloat, and then to be hit with a labour shortage, where even when we’re starting to see business coming back that they’re not able to sufficiently support it.”

Accommodations businesses in B.C. are “looking for employees in every position, with many hotels having to close wings or floors of their properties … because they can’t clean the rooms,” said Ingrid Jarrett, president of the BC Hotel Association.

She added that even when hoteliers can find staff, there’s nowhere for them to live due to another shortage: rental accommodations.

“This is tragic at a time when we need the revenue more than ever before. We need the working holiday visa program to resume, which is a federal program, and we need the province to step up and support the [provincial nominee program] as quickly as possible.”

One B.C. recreational tourism subsector that may have a decent winter season, due to reopened borders, is hunting and freshwater fishing guide outfitters.

Most customers who hire hunting and fishing guides in B.C. are American or European. Hunting guides in B.C. have “several hundred” clients booked for the fall hunting season, said Scott Ellis, executive director for the Guide Outfitters Association of BC.

The hunting season in B.C. varies, depending on species and area, but generally runs from August to about mid-November.

“We lost our spring season, but our fall season, we expect all our guys to be full,” Ellis said.

Freshwater fishing this summer was hit with closures, due to wildfires, heat and low stream levels. Those closures have since started to lift. The Skeena River is now open for steelhead fishing, for example, and the Fraser River is open for sturgeon.

Borders reopened to U.S. travellers on August 9 and to other international visitors on September 7. The return of American tourists has been a slow trickle so far.

Fisher does not expect reopened borders will result in any significant surges in international tourism this fall, though it could pick up for the winter ski season. She expects B.C. and the rest of Canada to provide the bulk of visitors this winter.

Despite borders reopening to non-essential travel, there are still barriers. One is the requirement of pre-flight and post-flight screening tests, which adds to costs and uncertainly for travellers. Some chaos remains within the airline industry, which is also struggling with staffing shortages.

While there may be some hard-core skiers who can’t wait to book a ski holiday in Whistler this winter, Fisher expects many would-be travellers will postpone travel this year.

“There is going to be a volume of people where there’s pent-up demand, and they’ve just been waiting for those borders to open up, and that’s the good news,” Fisher said. “Then there’s going to be mix of those who choose to wait a season. We don’t believe that we’re going to see any major surges throughout the fall. We’re maybe more hopeful when we look forward to winter.”

Any uptick this winter is expected to come first from B.C., then the rest of Canada, followed by the U.S. and the U.K.

Fisher said the federal government is aware of the hospitality and tourism industry’s labour shortage problem. The Whistler Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying Ottawa to speed up international worker visa processing, she said.

“We are starting to hear some encouraging signs from some of our hoteliers who are able to secure some workers for the upcoming winter,” Fisher said. “But this has been a tough summer for us because we have been short-staffed.” •