International travel to Canada has jumped sharply in 2016 thanks to a strong summer in the tourism sector, but the volume of visitors has still not reached the levels it hit 15 years ago.
Figures released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday show that just more than 14 million tourists came to Canada in the first eight months of this year, up more than 10 per cent from 2015. But the numbers are still not where they were in 2001, when about 14.8 million travellers came here.
The mix, though, is different from a decade and a half ago. In the January-to-August period of 2001, almost 12 million Americans came across the border for a visit, with just under three million visiting from other countries. In the same period of 2016, 9.8 million Americans came, with 4.2 million coming from overseas.
Americans cut back their international travel after the 2001 terrorist attacks, partly because of new rules that forced them to have passports to cross the border. A weak domestic economy in the United States, and the relatively high value of the Canadian dollar also caused some to stay at home.
In 2012 Canada also instituted sharp spending cuts to promote this country as a travel destination for Americans, and has only recently revived those efforts. Still, "we are not at the level of marketing that we were back in the heyday," said Rob Taylor, vice-president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
Meanwhile, the growth in non-American tourism to Canada has been driven by strong gains in travel from China, where a growing middle class now has the means to see the world. The number of Chinese tourists coming to Canada rose by 22 per cent in the January-to-August period compared with last year. China is now the third largest source of tourism to Canada, after the United States and Britain.
But tourism from Britain is still growing too. About 586,000 travellers came in the first eight months of this year, up 14 per cent from the same period a year ago. Travel from France, the fourth largest source of tourists, was up 8 per cent. Both have been boosted by the Canadian dollar, which is relatively low versus the pound and euro.
Statistics Canada said this summer has been a high-water mark for overseas travel to Canada, with July and August marking the highest and second-highest numbers of trips made by overseas residents to Canada since the agency began keeping travel records in 1972.
Mr. Taylor said that he hopes new federal funding to promote Canada in other countries will continue to boost the travel numbers. Ottawa gave Destination Canada – the Crown agency responsible for promoting Canadian tourism outside the country – an extra $50-million over two years in the 2016 federal budget, but Mr. Taylor said the industry would like to see a five-year funding commitment in next year's budget.
That will allow "a lot better collaboration and co-investment" between Destination Canada and specific tourist operators, over a longer term, he said. Travel marketing requires long periods of promotion because "you [need to] plant the seed of travel intentions, to get the conversion in the second or third year," he said.