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Leslie Bruce, president of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism in Banff, Alta., said that while Banff has generally managed the virus well, travellers may not feel comfortable visiting because of the health situation in the rest of the province.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s tourism industry was flat in the second quarter, according to new Statistics Canada data, and operators say they are hoping for a stronger fall and winter season.

Spending on tourism cratered in the early months of COVID-19, and for the past year has hovered at a little less than half of where it was prepandemic. Statistics Canada said Tuesday spending on the sector was $10.6-billion in the second quarter of 2021, up 4 per cent from the previous quarter.

Spending from international visitors has been at historic lows because of travel bans and testing requirements, down to 3 per cent in the second quarter from 26 per cent two years ago.

The slowdown in international travellers has had very different effects on tourist sites around the country.

Catherine Callary, vice-president of destination development for Ottawa Tourism, said that even before the pandemic, nearly all of the visitors to the national capital came from elsewhere in Canada.

She said hotel occupancy data showed the number of visitors to Ottawa was up about 50 per cent in the summer of 2021 compared to the previous summer, but still down about 30 per cent from 2019.

She said the big problem for Ottawa is that the city has always relied on business travel and conferences, which have been slow to come back. While her agency is hoping to attract leisure visitors for upcoming events such as Winterlude, it may be years before business travel returns to prepandemic numbers, if ever.

“We know that we’re going to have a very soft fall for our industry,” Ms. Callary said.

Leslie Bruce, president of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism in Banff, Alta., said the spring is usually quiet for the mountain-resort town, and this year the second quarter was especially low. She said travel to the area picked up later in the summer, and Banff is making things easier for international visitors by opening a walk-in COVID-19 testing centre on Friday.

Ms. Bruce said she is hopeful for a strong winter season, as the region is known as a top skiing destination.

However, she is worried about Alberta’s building fourth wave. The province currently has the highest COVID-19 caseload per capita in the country. Ms. Bruce said that while Banff has generally managed the virus well, travellers may not feel comfortable visiting because of the health situation in the rest of Alberta.

“I’m concerned about what that means for our reputation as a province,” Ms. Bruce said.

Dave Daley, the owner of Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Man., and board chair of the Manitoba Indigenous Tourism Association, said bookings look to be strong heading into the fall and winter. His company organizes dogsled outings in October and November, and in February and March he leads Northern Lights tours and snowshoe walks.

He estimated about 80 per cent of his customers in a given year were from the United States, adding the reopening of the border to U.S. visitors in August has “been a blessing for us.”

The tourism sector has been among the hardest-hit by public-health measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. The federal government launched wage and rent subsidies for all pandemic-affected companies last year, which are set to expire next month. The re-elected Liberals have promised to extend the subsidies just for businesses in the tourism sector.

Mr. Daley said the subsidies helped him get through last year’s lean times, noting that a local competitor went out of business in part because it couldn’t access the aid. While bookings are up, they still aren’t quite what they were prepandemic, he said, pointing out he still has 38 sled dogs to house and feed.

With no clear end in sight to the pandemic, he’s hoping the uptick in travel and supports for the industry continue in the interim. “Nobody knew this was going to last two years, right?”

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