Airlines, breweries and movie theatre chains were among the biggest recipients of $100 million in Ontario taxpayer funding designed to compensate the tourism industry for pandemic losses, CBC News has learned.
Premier Doug Ford’s government initially declined to name the companies that received funding through its Ontario Tourism Recovery Program, so CBC News obtained the list through a freedom of information request.
The list reveals that the maximum grant of nearly $700,000 each went to Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines, as well as a brewery, a winery and companies that own hotels but whose main business is construction or real estate.
The Ford government had announced the fund in 2021 to provide grants to tourism businesses whose revenues plunged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program documents said the money was for “Ontario-based, tourism businesses in the for-profit attractions and accommodations sectors that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 … private sector tourism businesses that are significant drivers to their regional tourism economies.”
The grants totalling $99.5 million went to 571 companies, according to information released to CBC News through a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
The maximum grant was $695,000. That went to 55 companies, the bulk of them hotel operators, as well as airlines, transport companies, and the operators of high-profile tourism attractions, such as Canada’s Wonderland and African Lion Safari.
Some of the companies that received $695,000 each:
- Amsterdam Brewing Corp.
- Andrew Peller Ltd.
- Cineplex Inc.
- Gillin Engineering and Construction Ltd.
- Kingsett Real Estate Growth LP No 5.
- Landmark Cinemas Holding Ltd.
- Morguard Corp.
A spokesperson for Tourism Minister Neil Lumsden said businesses that offered visitor experiences, tours, information sessions and demonstrations were eligible for the funding.
“The Ontario Tourism Recovery Program has significantly supported employers across Ontario with a proven track record of attracting visitors and generating tourist spending,” said Lumsden’s press secretary Alan Sakach in an email to CBC News.
“This program was one of many supports to ensure tourism in Ontario continues to be a key driver for the province’s economy,” he said.
Nearly half of the tourism recovery program’s total funding went to the 68 companies that received grants of more than $500,000 each. Restaurants were not eligible to apply.
Sakach said the government provided more than $3 billion in supports for Ontario small businesses — including restaurants and the tourism sector — throughout the pandemic.
Christopher Bloore, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, said businesses were grateful that they could put the provincial money directly toward mitigating losses and covering operational costs, something they could not do with the federal tourism relief fund.
However, the pace of the funding was an issue. “There was frustration at how slowly the money came out to the front line,” said Bloore in an interview.
The government created the fund as part of its March 2021 budget, opened applications in October of that year and gave businesses a deadline of November to apply.
Although government officials said that the money would start flowing within weeks of the application deadline, CBC News revealed that none of the grants had been paid by late March of 2022. That was more than two years after the pandemic hit Ontario and businesses were first forced to shut down.
Tourism companies began receiving the provincial payments last April.
Grape Escape Wine Tours was among them, getting $80,000 from the fund over two instalments. One of its co-owners, Richard Mell, said in an interview that the timing felt a bit late.
“Earlier would have helped to avoid certain loans that we had to take,” Mell said. “Earlier would have been nice, and obviously a little bit more money would have been nice too.”
Grape Escape has offered wine tours in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake for the past 15 years, both in vehicles and on bicycles. The business took a big hit during the lockdowns of spring and early summer of 2020, said Mell.
“It’s been playing catch up ever since,” he said. “When we were allowed to open with capacity limits, we were filling up to those limits, but not to our regular capacity that we would usually see.”
While Mell said he doesn’t begrudge public money going to large corporations such as the airlines, he said he would have preferred the government to focus this funding on smaller tourism operators and deal with big businesses in a different way.
More than 70 per cent of the businesses that received grants were given $100,000 or less.