Tourism may not recover for another two years, foot traffic ‘still missing,’ officials say


While tourism officials in Ottawa point to some positives for the summer season, they say the industry may not fully recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or 2025.

At the same time, some businesses are feeling the pinch of lagging foot traffic.

Often considered the No. 1 tourist destination in the city, the ByWard Market is struggling with crime and homelessness, as well as the shuttering of some well-known businesses. 

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Nicolas Bonnet, director of sales and marketing for Le Moulin de Provence, said the bakery, a popular tourist destination, has yet to see a full return to pre-pandemic traffic. 

“There’s been a lot of attention to other neighbourhoods and tourists are moving towards Lansdowne and other parts of the city,” said Bonnet. “A lot of events that used to take place in the Market aren’t happening here as much anymore and there are a lot of things missing, something is still missing.”

The neighbourhood might be less appealing to tourists since the pandemic, Bonnet said, with the closure of many familiar businesses. 

“Ottawa is popular … But based on my point of view, I think there’s been more attention to other neighbourhoods and other districts,” he said. “There are so many closed doors in the Market and companies and businesses haven’t been seen to be totally coming out of it.”

Although business at Le Moulin is going well and the staff feel “very fortunate,” Bonnet said the foot traffic is “nothing compared to before” the pandemic. 

“Just seeing people walking around, going to the Rideau Centre … It’s not just our store, but in general, there’s less of a presence.”

Sparks Street is also facing a prolonged decline in foot traffic, says business owner Étienne Cameron.

Owner of Lady Dive Tours and Gray Line Tours, as well as Cobblestone Tours during the winter, Cameron operates two ticket-selling vestibules on the corner of Sparks and Elgin streets. 

In recent years, he says he’s learned not to depend on foot traffic for the majority of ticket sales.

“We were relying on walk-ins quite a lot. We’ve noticed our online sales have compensated a little, but they’re still not compensating fully for what the walk-ins used to be,” he said. “We’re still down 30 per cent from our 2019 numbers.”

Although he’s been “mulling it over,” he said he’s hesitant to make any “drastic decisions” about his business model until numbers stabilize.

“I’m thinking of new ways to market it, considering going online only or trying a different location,” Cameron said. “But it’s an evolving situation and we don’t know until the numbers are where they used to be.”

While Cameron offered kudos to Sparks Street organizers for successful festivals and continued recovery, he said many factors come into play that threaten foot traffic, including a hit to the Asian tourist market.

Last month, China lifted a pandemic ban on group tours to countries including the U.S. and Australia, but tourists are still barred from group visits to Canada. While this has certainly been a hit, Cameron said there could be other possible explanations for the lack of foot traffic.

“Big festivals are awesome for us and for foot traffic in general, so it doesn’t help that the Asian market isn’t fully back,” Cameron explained. “But really I have no idea. Who knows?

“It’s nice to hear and know that hotel numbers might be up, but smaller attractions like us … are still down.”

A continued lack of business travel could be partially responsible for the problem, said Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, in an email to OBJ.

“The first half of the year was positive as we recover from the pandemic,” said Ball. “We are still lagging behind 2019 numbers, particularly as it relates to corporate travel from people looking to do business with the federal government.”

The fall season “looks strong,” and the hotel association is forecasting a return to 2019 numbers in 2024, he said. But there are concerns about the economy due to high interest rates, consumer debt and “other factors that may affect leisure travellers and vacation planning in 2024.

“Leisure travel is expected to be stagnant globally and that is a segment we count on during the summer months,” he said.

Meanwhile, although Ottawa Tourism is celebrating “a few wins” this summer, including new emergency festival funding, the Visit Ottawa Pass and the launch of the direct Air France flights, a spokesperson said a return to pre-pandemic success is not expected until 2025.

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