Everything's coming up tulips: Ottawa's tourism industry on upswing as summer nears – but challenges remain

tulips
The Canadian Tulip Festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Commissioners Park at Dow's Lake each May to see the tulips in bloom. Photo by Janna Glenn.

The thousands of out-of-towners who traditionally flock to Parliament Hill every Canada Day are usually more of a bane than a boon to Glen Shackleton’s Sparks Street tourism business – but that could change this year.

Shackleton’s company, the Haunted Walk, offers “ghost tours and paranormal adventures” at various sites in downtown Ottawa as well as Toronto and Kingston. Yet even though it’s located just a stone’s throw from the Hill, Haunted Walk typically shuts its doors on the tourism industry’s busiest day of the year because Sparks Street and the surrounding area is too jam-packed with Canada Day revellers for guides to properly conduct their excursions.

Shackleton hopes this July 1 will be different. 

Heritage Canada announced Monday that in-person Canada Day celebrations will return to the nation’s capital this year after being cancelled for the past two summers due to the pandemic. But the multibillion-dollar Centre Block rehabilitation project means most of the festivities will be shifting west from their traditional focal point of Parliament Hill to LeBreton Flats, potentially opening the door for Haunted Walks to offer its spooky tours on Canada’s birthday.

“It brings a lot of people into town,” Shackleton says of Canada Day. “It’s certainly a net win.”

Indeed, the return of Canada’s birthday celebrations is yet more good news in what’s shaping up to be the best summer tourism season in a while for Shackleton and the tens of thousands of other Ottawans who work in the industry.

"Obviously, the more that festivals come back and the more that there are more things to do, to provide more reasons for people to travel to Ottawa, the better it is for anyone who relies on tourism."

With marquee events such as Bluesfest back on the summer schedule and this month’s Tulip Festival drawing big crowds to kick off the season, tourism businesses are finally seeing some rays of sunshine after a couple of very dark years. 

“Obviously, the more that festivals come back and the more that there are more things to do, to provide more reasons for people to travel to Ottawa, the better it is for anyone who relies on tourism,” says Shackleton, who had to lay off about 100 tour guides across all his operations when COVID first hit. 

While nobody expects a return just yet to the capital’s pre-pandemic visitor numbers, which exceeded 10 million annually, the industry is showing signs of recovery.

“We’re seeing numbers that are better than pre-pandemic for our general public tours,” Shackleton says, adding his business has been buoyed by the reopening of one of its most popular attractions, the tour of the old Ottawa jail on Nicholas Street. “It’s been very strong.”

Ottawa Tourism spokesperson Jantine Van Kregten says she’s “bullish” on the summer leisure tourism season. 

“Barring any unforeseen calamities, we think that the pent-up demand for travel will be expressed, especially as events such as Canada Day and Ottawa Bluesfest return to in-person celebrations,” Van Kregten said in an email to OBJ.

She says the organization plans to launch a marketing campaign focused on “culture and creativity,” highlighting the region’s museums as well as music and arts festivals, in a bid to stoke excitement among travellers from nearby cities who’ve missed out on such experiences for the past two summers.

Hotel occupancy lagging

“We feel those messages will resonate with our core audience of Ontario and Quebec residents, and even those farther afield,” Van Kregten adds.

Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association president Steve Ball is also expecting a surge of summer leisure traffic to help resuscitate an industry that’s suffered through its worst two-year stretch in memory during the pandemic.

Ball says occupancy rates at hotels in the National Capital Region have lagged those in other major Canadian cities early in 2022. He blames much of that sluggishness on the trucker convoy that snarled traffic and brought business in the core to a standstill in February, noting the demonstrations caused “a lot of cancellations” at downtown hotels. 

But Ball says optimism in the local industry is rising along with the temperature as the prime vacation months of July and August approach.

“We’re definitely seeing things pick up over last year,” he says. “The leisure market is building very nicely for the summer months.” 

Ball, whose organization represents more than 50 hotels, notes that tourism businesses looking to cash in on Canada Day are also catching a break from the calendar. July 1 falls on a Friday this year, and Ball hopes that will give visitors a bit of extra incentive to stick around and check out the capital’s array of other attractions while they’re in town.

“We’re optimistic that people will spend the whole weekend here,” he says. “Certainly, the timing this year is exciting. We’re hoping people come on a Thursday and stay until Sunday.”

But even as optimism in the sector is rekindled, Ottawa tourism operators say it’s not all smooth sailing ahead.

While the World Travel and Tourism Council said this week it’s forecasting the Canadian sector as a whole will match 2019’s economic output next year, Ball, Van Kregten and others suggest the capital’s recovery could take longer.

They note that one of the local industry’s main engines, business and convention traffic, is probably years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels. And as long as that’s the case, tourism businesses in the capital region will still be playing catchup.

"We’re way ahead of last year, but that’s not a very good comparison. Full recovery for Ottawa will require business travel to come back, and that’s still lagging for a lot of reasons."

“We’re way ahead of last year, but that’s not a very good comparison,” Ball says, noting hotel revenues remain as much as 30 per cent below 2019 levels. “Full recovery for Ottawa will require business travel to come back, and that’s still lagging for a lot of reasons. There are still barriers to travel. Our expectation is we won’t get back to our traditional numbers possibly for another year or two.”

Van Kregten agrees, noting that even when leisure tourism rebounds to pre-pandemic levels, “that won’t mean that the entire industry has recovered.” 

“Convention business and major events will take much longer to resume and until those room nights return, the industry will still struggle,” she says. “Business travel for in-person events is a very important piece of the puzzle for Ottawa.”

Still, there’s reason to believe the tide is turning on that front as well. 

The International Association of Fire Fighters is expecting about 1,500 delegates to attend its convention at the Shaw Centre from Aug. 8-12, the biggest gathering of a major professional association in the capital since the pandemic began. 

That month, the city is also hosting the CP Women’s Open, an LPGA Tour stop, as well as several other national sporting events and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference – suggesting that Ottawa is back on the map as a major events venue.

Downtown at Haunted Walk, Shackleton says that while the industry might not be at full strength yet, its vital signs are steadily improving. 

“Reopening is not the same thing as recovery,” he sums up. “It’s going to take a couple of years for the whole industry to get back to where it needs to be. That being said, reopening is sure a lot better than nothing. It’s a good start.”