Tourism is back – but downtown hoteliers aren’t banking on a big Canada Day bump

canada day

While local hotels are expecting a “soft” Canada Day, this summer is projected to be a banner year for tourism in Ottawa. 

The hospitality sector was among those most significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with travel restrictions keeping hotels empty of both guests and events. 

But even compared with 2022, Ottawa lodgings are seeing a nice improvement, according to David Smythe, general manager of the Lord Elgin Hotel. 

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“Last summer was a nice surprise, I think, for everybody in the business,” he said. “Spring (this year) was very good. Certainly back to pre-pandemic numbers, which is encouraging. We suspect that this summer, we will see a strong leisure travel market.”

Through July and August, a pickup in local events is expected to draw travellers back to the capital. Ottawa, said Smythe, is a particularly attractive destination for those looking for a vibrant destination. 

“Ottawa has a lot of really strong destination infrastructure here,” he said. “The city has grown considerably, so it’s very attractive to leisure travellers that are coming from overseas or even just from Toronto or Arnprior. It’s a very strong offering, just as a base product.” 

Nearby, the Chateau Laurier is also expecting to see occupancy rates recover throughout the summer. 

Like most hotels, its numbers suffered through the pandemic but saw a fairly strong resurgence in 2022, according to Amna Abdennour, director of media marketing and partnerships. But this year, she said, guests’ comfort levels with travelling are much higher. 

“We are expecting a better summer compared to last year,” Abdennour said. “It’s people wanting to be out after the pandemic, feeling more comfortable. Still during the 2022 summer, restrictions were less – however, people are more comfortable to travel now in 2023.”

While the summer season is expected to be stronger as a whole, several hotels are not expecting a massive turnout for the Canada Day weekend. 

For the second year in a row, extensive renovations on Parliament Hill have pushed the festivities out of the downtown core to LeBreton Flats.

As a result, hotels in the downtown area, including the Chateau Laurier and the Lord Elgin, are seeing lower-than-expected booking activity.

“We are expecting some traffic but not as much as usual,” said Abdennour. “The celebration moving to LeBreton Flats will affect the majority of the crowd, which won’t be going in front of the hotel anymore. So (we’re expecting) a much smaller crowd.”

Novotel Ottawa, which is also downtown on Nicholas Street, is expecting similar effects, according to general manager Cyril Bulvestre. 

“Normally by now, we should be sold out for Canada Day,” he said. “We’re expecting a bit of last-minute pickup depending on the weather, but we’re about 60 per cent booked at the minute.”

While Canada Day is expected to be relatively soft, overall, Novotel has bounced back, according to Bulvestre. He said the hotel expects this summer’s occupancy rate to exceed pre-pandemic numbers from 2019..  

“Business is coming back better and better,” he said. 

While hotels are reporting positive metrics as tourists flood into the city for the summer, the hospitality and tourism sectors as a whole have yet to make a full recovery, according to Catherine Callary, vice-president of destination development with Ottawa Tourism. 

“We’ve been through a couple of rough years with the pandemic,” she said. 

The tourism sector isn’t set to fully recover from the pandemic until 2025, the city’s main tourism marketing agency says. That’s in large part due to the slow rebound of international travel, which is still well behind pre-pandemic levels. 

“That’s going to take the longest to recover,” said Callary. “Different parts of different segments of travel are recovering at different rates. For leisure travel, that rebound happened a lot quicker than some others, like business travel for conferences and conventions, or group travel.”

Many international flights to Ottawa that were scrapped during the pandemic are still not operating, which has also contributed to the slow return. Air France’s new direct route from Paris is expected to help once it launches later this month.

While downtown hotels will feel the effects of the Canada Day activities moving away from Parliament Hill, Callary said overall tourist traffic should be high for the weekend, with the main event at LeBreton Flats expected to be as exciting as ever. 

“Especially because it’s going to fall on a Saturday this year,” she said. “It’s great news as far as Canada Day getaway travel goes. We’re feeling really optimistic. 2023 is looking really positive, showing further rebound, and as far as Canada Day goes, we’re looking at a further opportunity to see some good tourism traffic.”

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