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A federal boost for Ottawa’s hard-hit tourism industry could bring some sophisticated visitors to Ottawa

How Coconut Lagoon and others benefited from the Tourism Relief Fund

Joe Thottungal
"Chef Joe" Thottungal of the Coconut Lagoon and Thali

When celebrated Ottawa chef Joe Thottungal of the Coconut Lagoon lost his restaurant to a fire, he knew getting back on his feet would mean turning over a few rocks to get some help. 

But who knew the pandemic responsible for taking a good chunk of his business would eventually offer a part of the solution. 

To help get Ontario’s tourism industry back on its feet, the Government of Canada, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) provided support to help tourism businesses and organizations invest in new and enhanced tourism experiences to attract visitors and support future growth. 

“Helping business owners like Joe get back on their feet is the reason why our government created the Tourism Relief Fund,” said the Honourable Filomena Tassi, Minister responsible for FedDev Ontario. “We know that businesses in Ottawa and across Ontario have the potential to grow and contribute to their local economy. We are providing them with the support they need to achieve their goals and thrive for years to come.”

Ottawa Tourism was selected to administer support to local organizations and businesses that were eligible in the Ottawa and Prescott-Russell region, as well as other municipalities, providing pivotal support when it was needed the most.

“From the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2022, Ottawa suffered a $3.5 billion loss in visitor spending,” said Catherine Callary, Ottawa Tourism’s vice-president of destination development. “The impact on the tourism industry was significant and it will take some time to recover.”

Future-proofing the tourism industry

The purpose of the Tourism Relief Fund was to help Ottawa’s tourism industry future-proof their businesses after the pandemic by developing new attractions or by improving their visitor experience through upgraded amenities and facilities.

“Businesses were very creative,” said Callary. “We approved infrastructure projects as well as diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, like the Bytown Museum’s addition of Anishinaabe translations to all their exhibits.”

“For me, the timing was everything,” said Thottungal. “I’m a member of Ottawa Tourism and got a notification about the funds. It was a long shot, but I tried because I was building from scratch and had to look at every avenue to rebuild.”

Thottungal says the application process was made simple by Ottawa Tourism’s friendly staff. “Given that this build was happening during the most difficult time for everyone involved, making it easy to apply was greatly appreciated,” he said. 

The attraction he added to the St. Laurent location of Coconut Lagoon is a second floor loft-inspired space designed specifically for private events. “We wanted to create an elevated space where we can showcase our food in the perfect ambience and location,” said Thottungal. “It’s suitable for small private events like business meetings, small weddings or even a night of whiskey tasting among friends.” 

Catering to “sophisticated explorers”

Another benefit of having Ottawa Tourism administer these funds was the ability to align the grants with the recently developed Ottawa Destination Stewardship Plan, released in November 2022 after consultations with many local stakeholders.

One of the new target markets they identified was the “sophisticated explorer”,  someone who enjoys sightseeing, visiting cultural attractions, learning new things and attending cultural events.

Developing and showcasing artistic, cultural, historical and foodie experiences – such as Coconut Lagoon’s private event space – is just one example of how the city plans to cater to this market. 

Having an upscale event space is also a way Thottungal and the city are hoping to attract and target business travellers, especially on the heels of the new direct flight announcement between Paris, France and Ottawa.

Thottungal fully supports this plan, mentioning the need to elevate the city’s profile as a world-class destination. To paint a more complete and accurate depiction of Ottawa, he says we need to showcase our high-end restaurants in addition to our historical sites. 

‘Chef Joe’ is already seeing the results from the funding project, saying that others in the tourism industry are having a hard time keeping up with the post-pandemic demand.  

“This funding really helped me and I thank Ottawa Tourism for the opportunity,” said Thottungal. “I’ve always aimed to be a catalyst for bringing new things into Ottawa through different flavours and cuisine. This summer will be a great opportunity to showcase Ottawa.”