Independent travel advisors in Ontario are criticizing Premier Doug Ford’s new “staycation tax credit,” painting the initiative as yet another example of how the province has failed to support hard-hit travel agents and agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Nov. 4, Ontario announced that anyone planning a getaway within the province in the 2022 tax year could be eligible under a new "Ontario Staycation Tax Credit" program.
The credit, part of the Ford government's Fall Economic Statement, would allow Ontarians to get a 20 per cent personal income tax credit on eligible accommodation between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, up to a maximum of $1,000 for an individual and $2,000 for a family, for a maximum credit of $200 or $400.
But Ontario-based travel advisors – who largely sell outbound, international travel due to market demand and because that’s where the commission is – say the credit, which, essentially, urges Ontarians to stay home, ignores the unique needs of travel advisors as they struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic.
The point the Ford government is missing, as Tiny Township, ON-based Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach points out, is that “international and domestic travel are a massive eco-system and one simply cannot survive without the other.”
Yes, Ontario travel agents send customers abroad to destinations outside of Ontario.
But at the same time, they also support airlines, tour operators and other tourism-related businesses in Ontario, such as Park n’ Fly, airport retail and hotels and insurance companies. In other words, it’s all connected.
“It is very discouraging,” Ottawa-based Nancy Wilson of Leisure Life Holiday told PAX. “Not that they created a tax credit to encourage tourism in Ontario, but in the way they are marketing it.”
“It is as though they are Walmart and we are Target, trying to take business away from Canada.”
Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, who runs the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) with Slater and Wilson, calls the staycation credit a “blatant attempt to prevent these small business owners from seeing any recovery after the last 20 months of no revenue.”
From independent advisors not qualifying for three tourism-related benefit programs unveiled by the province this year to Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod ignoring invitations to meet with ACITA to this new staycation credit, travel advisors “feel like they have had a triple hit,” Coates told PAX.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s travel arrangement and reservation services industry generated $14 billion in operating revenue in 2018, up 0.4 per cent from the previous year, according to Statistics Canada.
Ontario, notably, accounted for the largest share of revenue that year (46.3 per cent).
“We directly contribute to the economy, which the Ontario Government cannot seem to understand, no matter how many attempts we make to educate them,” said Milton, ON-based Kristin Hoogendoorn of KMH Travels. “This tax credit feels like another message for travel advisors, and that is, 'We have no interest in helping you.'”
Hoogendoorn dismisses the credit as a tactic Premier Ford is using to “lure voters.”
“Hopefully, it will boost local tourism,’ Hoogendoorn said, “but at the end of the day, Ontarians barely benefit from this so-called tax credit with maybe $200 back in their pocket.”
Meanwhile, travel advisors have been asking Ontario for help “while watching grant after grant roll out, leaving us ineligible,” she said.
Ajax, ON-based Jamie Badowski of The Travel Agent Next Door said the staycation credit “has a direct effect on us.”
“As independent travel advisors, we book with TICO-certified travel suppliers, which is direct support for Ontario,” she said. “We help support tourism in a way that Lisa MacLeod just does not understand.”
Missteps & "clueless” remarks
Ontario’s staycation credit adds to a line of missteps committed by the province over the past year that have blocked some 7,000 independent travel advisors from accessing much-needed support.
The Ontario Small Business Support Grant and Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant, for one, were at first viewed as lifelines that could help hard-hit travel agencies keep the lights on.
However, many Ontario travel advisors were unable to access these funds due to issues with the application process, which excluded most independent advisors from qualifying.
This program, instead, aims to support inns and lodges, regional air routes, boat tours, ski centres, live performance venues, cinemas, drive-in theatres, amusement, water parks and other domestic attractions.
(Again, ignoring the fact that travel advisors are part of tourism’s infrastructure too).
Then, to add insult to injury, Minister MacLeod, last month, made discouraging remarks at a press conference, telling travel agents to send their clients to places in Ontario instead of sun destinations down south like Cancun or the Dominican Republic.
The comment came just over a week before the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) – the only federal benefit ICs have been able to access – expired, sparking anger within trade circles.
On PAXnews.com’s Facebook page, in particular, several readers called MacLeod’s remarks “ignorant” and “clueless” while outlining the many reasons why selling travel in Ontario isn’t quite the same as selling sun destinations like Cancun.
A satirical meme began circulating on social media to illustrate the point – an image depicting a woman in a blue bikini, sitting on a throne made of snow under an umbrella, drinking a bottled beverage in the wintery outdoors.
“Special offer,” the meme reads. “Book your January all-inclusive vacation in balmy Ontario. Enjoy negative temperatures, frost bite, and possible hypothermia. For a 20% discount enter ‘Lisa MacLeod’ at checkout.”
“They are being left out"
Independent travel advisors aren’t the only ones calling foul on the Ford government.
Last week, MPP for Toronto-St. Paul's, Dr. Jill Andrew, who serves as the Ontario NDP Culture Critic and Women's Issues Critic for the Official Opposition, asked Minister MacLeod, in Ontario’s legislature, why independent advisors did not receive a cent from the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant.
Dr. Andrews pointed to an “oversight” in the application process that required applicants to submit a TICO registration number. (What many independent agents have, in fact, is a TICO certificate number).
“They are being left out,” Andrew said.
Minister MacLeod, in response, said her priority is for “the tourism economy in Ontario to be restored, not the tourism economy in Florida or the Dominican Republic or in Mexico.”
She said the government invested $8.6 million in “eligible travel agents” through the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant, “which was 10 per cent of the entire allocation of the budget’s program.”
Minister MacLeod did not say if the grant would be fixed to allow ineligible independent agents access to the grant with backdated support.
“One more slap in the face”
It’s statements (or lack of statements) like this that frustrate travel advisors like Heather Kearns of Latitude Concierge Travels, especially given the billions of dollars travel advisors generate for the Canadian economy ($14 billion in 2018, remember).
“Yes, we send clients to the Dominican Republic, Florida and Mexico, but the revenue we generate for the economy by booking these vacations is through Canadian businesses within our sector,” Kearns said.
Introducing a staycation credit is “one more slap in the face” to independent travel advisors “who’ve worked steadfastly over and over again” on their client’s files.
“Clients undoubtedly explore their own province, but do so without the services of a travel advisor,” Kearns told PAX.
“Where they need a travel advisor is in navigating international requirements, expectations and details on destinations they are interested in exploring.”
“Ontarians don’t need or use a travel advisor to explore their own backyard.”
Silence from MacLeod
Meanwhile, ACITA, with “pure frustration,” continues to contact Minister MacLeod’s offices with an invitation to meet, via Zoom, so they can personally explain how independent travel advisors are falling through the cracks and why they are deserving of grants.
In a recent email to MacLeod, ACITA noted the many requests it, its members, MPPs and even some MPs have made to secure some one-on-one time.
“Our team has sent messages via Facebook, Twitter, Town Hall meetings, and anything else we can think of to gain your attention,” the email, which ACITA shared with PAX, reads. “We spoke with Kathleen Wynne early in the summer, who walked across the aisle and advised you to meet with our group.”
“We urge you to please give us 30 minutes of your time.”
Nancy Wilson said the entire ACITA membership is "floored with how flippant Lisa MacLeod has been towards us."
"She seems to think we will just get discouraged and give up, but it’s actually having the opposite effect," Wilson said. "It has united every advisor in Ontario, both independent and bricks and mortar."