How could COVID-19 affect Ontario’s attractions, tourism industry during March break?

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While a number of COVID-19 cases have been announced in Ontario since late January, the province’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries says it’s “too early to tell” whether the virus will affect local tourism over March break.

“According to Ontario Public Health and the ministry of health, we still remain at very low risk as Ontarians, and therefore our tourism industry still remains strong,” Lisa MacLeod, the province’s heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries minister, told Global News Monday.

“As we move into the March break…we’re just encouraging people to go on about their business.”

But COVID-19 has already affected people’s behaviours, according to Frederic Dimanche, the director of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, who said Ontario’s tourism industry will see a drop in the future.

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“I don’t think there is any destination in the world that will not see a drop,” Dimanche said.

“I think the decline for Ontario is going to be slower than in some other destinations…because Canada is still perceived to be a destination that is relatively safe.”

While the province’s tourism industry may decline slower than other places, Dimanche said the situation is fluid and could change quickly.

“There is already a slow-down in reservations to travel internationally,” he said.

“This may be an opportunity also for domestic travel. In other words, people from Canada, instead of going to the United States, instead of going to Italy or France at the moment, may be thinking about staying in their own country and visiting another province, such as Ontario.”

MacLeod said she’s convened a roundtable within her ministry to receive regular COVID-19 updates on how the virus could affect Ontario’s tourism industry.

“I’m urging people just to remain calm,” MacLeod said.

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“Our big play in the ministry is to make sure that we are continuing to work with our public health partners, our tourism partners, as well as our federal government partners.”

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But according to Dimanche, changes in tourism due to COVID-19 will affect the economy.

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“It may not be very significant for a city, unless that city is relying heavily on tourism,” he said.

“Toronto is at the forefront. We are one of the leading destinations in Canada, urban destinations, so it’s definitely going to have an impact. To what extent? We don’t know.”

Once people stop flying to Toronto, Dimanche added, there will be less traffic at local hotels, restaurants and attractions.

“Everybody will suffer that economic impact,” he said.

At this point, MacLeod said agencies that report to her ministry, including the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), have noted that they haven’t seen “any discernible reduction in visitors.”

“[There’s] a little bit of a dip in hotels, a little bit of a dip in other things, but they cannot completely attribute it to this moment,” the minister added.

“We’ll continue to work with our regional tourism operators, as well as the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, but at this point in time, we have seen no reduction.”

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In a statement emailed to Global News, ROM spokesperson Sally Tindal said the museum is monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and taking the “necessary measures” to ensure the health and safety of its employees, volunteers and visitors.

“We’ve established a working group led by senior management to monitor, assess and coordinate a response and are following Ontario Ministry of Health, Toronto Public Health and other appropriate authorities for updates and guidelines,” Tindal said in the statement.

“We are seeing some softness in attendance levels which could be due to a number of factors, including the current teacher job action. It is possible that COVID-19 has played a part in this, however it’s too early to know for sure.”

No one from the AGO was available for an interview for this story, but spokesperson Andrea-Jo Wilson said in an email that it’s “business as usual” at the gallery.

“We continue to be in touch with health officials,” Wilson wrote.

“We have installed additional hand sanitizer stations throughout the gallery and are encouraging any staff who feel ill to remain at home.”

While everyone will feel the brunt of COVID-19, Dimanche said, Ontario experienced a similar situation 17 years ago with SARS.

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“I think industry may be better prepared,” he added.

“I’m hoping that people have contingency plans, they have alternative marketing plans.”

So far, there have been 36 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ontario, five of which have been resolved. In Canada, there has been a total of 79 confirmed cases, with one death in British Columbia.

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