Local tourism got a multi-million-dollar boost today.
Regional Tourism Organization 7 (RTO7) — which provides strategic and collaborative leadership to build, sustain and grow tourism in Bruce, Grey and Simcoe counties — is one of the 11 RTOs in southern Ontario that are set to receive funding as part of a $68.5-million investment through the Tourism Relief Fund.
The funding, which was announced Wednesday by Helena Jaczek, the minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), is aimed at helping tourism businesses and communities safely welcome back visitors, recover from the impacts of the pandemic and prepare for future growth.
The funding will be available through non-repayable contributions of up to $100,000 to southern Ontario tourism-oriented businesses and organizations to innovate and invest in new and enhanced tourism experiences to attract visitors from within Canada and around the world.
Across the province, the funding is expected to support up to 1,300 tourism entities and create or maintain up to 4,100 jobs.
Locally, the funding will be distributed by RTO7, explained County of Simcoe tourism manager Kathryn Stephenson, adding tourism-oriented businesses and organizations will be able to apply for a portion of the funds.
“It’s so new, and it’s literally just rolling out... (but) applicants will need to meet various eligibility requirements and guidelines,” she said.
Additional information is expected to be provided on the organization’s website shortly, Stephenson added.
“It’s available for not-for-profits, municipalities, private businesses, Indigenous businesses. It’s available to all of the different sectors in tourism, but is available through an application process that RTO7 will administer," she said.
Stephenson said she foresees the funding being a huge boost to the regional tourism and hospitality industry after being “decimated” due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the lockdowns, it’s just been terrible for (those) industries. It will infuse money into the region — Bruce, Grey and Simcoe for our particular region, but all of southern Ontario — to support new infrastructure in tourism, experiences, and really support the destination and destination businesses so we can be ready to receive visitors,” she said.
“Whether we are upgrading, adding infrastructure (or) doing large marketing campaigns, we are going to be able to have some funding in order to get the destination back running," Stephenson added.
Bruce-Grey-Simcoe offers a variety of unique experiences which position it perfectly to be a four-season tourism destination, she said.
“We are somewhat of a rural destination and have a plethora of outdoor recreation, especially Simcoe County. Bruce-Grey-Simcoe is a four-season destination. I know you hear that a lot, but we truly are. We have outdoor experiences that are extremely authentic to the region, but then we also have a great agri-tourism product,” she said, pointing to the region’s successful maple syrup season.
“I think this all makes (it) a unique destination, especially during and after COVID. People want to get outside, health and wellness is top of mind for everyone and we have that kind of offering," Stephenson added. "We have the trails, cycling routes, agri-tourism products, farmers markets, skiing, beaches… (plus) we have some really great resort products.”
News of the funding came as a welcome surprise, she admitted.
“We are absolutely thrilled with it. It’s going to be a much welcome infusion of funding for us to really restart and rejuvenate tourism and get people out,” Stephenson said. “This was really a great announcement today and we are thrilled to have this level of support for our tourism businesses and the tourism sector in general.”
In an email to BarrieToday, Simcoe County Warden George Cornell said the funding will be "vital" to helping revive tourism in the area.
"Tourism represents Simcoe County’s largest employee sector, with more than 25,000 tourism and hospitality workers,” he said. “This funding, combined with additional supports, such as the county's tourism, culture and grant, is welcome and timely as businesses work toward recovery, bring back vital jobs and support our regional economy by attracting visitors in a safe manner to our amazing region."
Despite all of the ups and downs faced over the last two years, Stephenson said she's feeling “cautiously optimistic” the industry will be able to bounce back.
“Safety is, of course, first. ... We want to make sure that our destination is safe. Things have been looking better lately, and hopefully we can get people out to enjoy all we have to offer," she said.