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Hundreds of foreign service officers walks out of Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters June 06, 2013 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada's tourism sector is being hit hard by a foreign-service job action that is slowing applications for tourist visas, and the industry is warning it could clobber the peak summer season.

Walkouts in Canadian embassies and consulates, and especially at those with busy visa operations, have created backlogs for tourist visas – and the threat of long delays has put off many tourists thinking of travelling to Canada, said David Goldstein, the president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

Worse, it's happening just as people are booking summer trips – and that's a nightmare for a country with a short peak season for tourism.

"For our industry, this is tantamount to a retail clerks' strike in the middle of Christmas," Mr. Goldstein said.

Though Americans and Europeans don't need visas to visit Canada, tourists from emerging markets such as China, Mexico, and India do need visas. Those countries are some of Canada's fastest-growing tourism markets; in 2012, 298,000 Chinese tourists came to Canada, up 19 per cent from the previous year, making it the fifth-largest source country.

Now, waits of as long as six weeks are causing many to give up and go elsewhere, tour operators say.

"Who wants to leave their passport for six weeks?" said Luzana Rada, president of Global Tourisme, a Quebec-based company that organizes tours to Canada mainly for visitors from Latin America and Europe. "It's a catastrophe."

She said her company has noticed bookings from Mexico are down as much as 50 per cent in the past three weeks – in a season when an increase was forecast. When it started investigating why, it found out its Mexican clients were facing visa waits of six weeks. And since those travellers come mainly in July and August, a whole season could be quickly wiped out, she said.

The visa slowdown is part of job action launched by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which represents diplomats and immigration officers at posts abroad.

Members at the Canadian missions with the biggest visa centres, in places such as Beijing, New Delhi, and Mexico City, walked off the job June 6, after the government refused to budge on its contract offer. Some visa officers have been declared essential workers, and must remain on the job, said Alexis Pavlich, a press secretary for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

The union says its members are paid $3,000 to $14,000 a year less than public servants who do similar work in Canada, and they want the government to address that gap. Matthew Conway, press secretary for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is responsible for bargaining with employees, repeated the government's customary line that the foreign service is "well-paid and highly sought-after posting."

The union president, Timothy Edwards, said the tourism industry should direct its complaints to the government. "This could be resolved easily by the government coming to the table and showing both respect and an ounce of flexibility to its employees," he said.

Mr. Goldstein said that the industry is concerned that the delays will turn tour operators off Canada for a long time to come, damaging the Canadian brand with a reputation for hassle. "We support the government's efforts to modernize the public service, but the key element is service," he said.