The Okanagan has long been a tourism haven for those living on the West Coast, but it’s largely an unknown destination on the world stage.
Federal Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly spoke with tourism operators in Penticton at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday, a day after announcing a new nation-wide tourism strategy.
It’s designed to boost international arrivals during non-peak seasons by more than one million people.
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The plan, unveiled in Montreal, includes $58.5 million over two years to help communities create or improve tourism facilities and experiences.
The federal government says the tourism measures are tooled to help tourism revenues grow by 25 per cent — to $128 billion — by 2025 and the government also hopes to create 54,000 new jobs directly related to tourism.
“We want to boost tourism year-long, so not only summer seasons but throughout the year, and not only in our three big cities which are Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver,” Joly said in Penticton on Thursday.
According to the latest data available from Destination BC, British Columbians and Albertans make up the majority of the visitors to the Thompson Okanagan, followed by a small percentage of tourists from the United Kingdom, Australia and Ontario.
“What we’ve actually seen over the last four years is that steady growth in international visitation to the area,” said Glenn Mandziuk, Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association President and CEO.
Tourism officials said transforming the Okanagan into a year-round destination thwarts the economic risk posed by unpredictable fire seasons.
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Hotel occupancy rates dropped up to eight per cent last August, when thick smoke blanketed the region.
“Climate change is real,” Joly said.
“We need to make sure also that we help the tourism sector to become a bigger industry.”
“One of the big things that has happened because of the forest fires is it has forced the industry to look at other seasons, to be open for business,” Mandziuk added.
Joly also fielded questions about chronic labour shortages plaguing the hospitality industry.
“One of our main issues as well is affordable accommodation so we need staff to be able to manage our wine shops, our tasting rooms, in the vineyards and especially in our restaurants,” said Christa-Lee McWatters, marketing director with TIME Winery and the chair of the BC Wine Institute.
Joly said addressing seasonal labour shortages in the tourism sector is also on the agenda.
“Seniors, students, and international visas are definitely part of our plan to deal with labour shortages,” she said.
Despite the challenges, tourism operators are gearing up for another busy summer season.