City task force touts rural tourism campaign in economic recovery plan

Diefenbunker
The Diefenbunker in Carp is one of rural Ottawa's most popular attractions.

Ottawa plans to launch a rural tourism promotional campaign as part of a plan to kickstart sectors of the local economy that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 lockdown, city officials said Friday.

The bid to encourage tourists to visit rural areas of the city was one of several initiatives touted during a virtual meeting of the “economic partners task force,” a group chaired by Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Eli El-Chantiry that’s looking at ways to help Ottawa’s business community recover from the economic carnage of the pandemic.

Watson said the new rural tourism campaign will be aimed at local residents as well as visitors from nearby cities such as Kingston and Montreal. He said the promotion will highlight the region’s bicycle trails and attractions in rural villages beyond Ottawa’s suburbs.

Ottawa Tourism has frequently touted the National Capital Region’s “rural routes” in its marketing, highlighting in recent years the winery tours, museums and whitewater rafting experiences outside the city’s core.

However, drawing Ottawa residents to those local attractions is likely to take on considerably more importance this year as many out-of-town tourists forego their travel plans.

Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt, who sits on the task force, said the capital stands to lose up to $1.4 billion in visitor spending in 2020 and needs to do all it can to get the industry back on its feet. 

Crockatt said tourism will likely have a “hyperlocal” focus once Canadians resume travelling because many people may be reluctant to venture long distances. 

“This might actually work in Ottawa’s favour,” he added, noting the capital is within a few hours’ drive of Canada’s two largest cities. He said his organization’s research shows that outdoor recreation activities are at the top of many travellers’ wish lists, adding that’s an area of strength the region needs to capitalize on.

Waiving patio fees

Steve Willis, the city’s head of economic development, said the hospitality and retail sectors have borne much of the brunt of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. As of the beginning of May, employment in the entertainment and food services sector had fallen 58 per cent since the start of the pandemic, while four in 10 retail workers had lost their jobs.

“We know that these sectors will be slow to recover, and we need to do what we can to help them,” Willis said.

He said the city has already begun to fast-track efforts to help restaurant owners by waiving certain patio fees in a bid to allow more space for customers to eat and drink outdoors ​– an initiative that won council’s approval on Wednesday.

Willis said his department is looking at ways to speed up the application process for business licences and permits and plans to waive fees for tourist kiosks. He said the city also wants to make it easier for retailers to display goods in front of their stores.

Noting that many of her members are struggling to pay rent and cover employee salaries, Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching said all levels of government must continue to work together to support entrepreneurs who are having a hard time making ends meet.

“Small businesses are at the forefront of this war,” she said.  

Representatives of the task force also issued a plea for residents to change their shopping behaviours in an effort to boost local merchants.

Mark Kaluski, the chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas, noted that many food delivery platforms, for example, charge restaurants commission fees of up to 30 per cent. 

“That money is just evaporating out of our local economy,” Kaluski said. He urged consumers to instead order their meals directly from restaurants and shop at local stores whenever possible rather than buying from multinational e-commerce companies.