In the Hot Seat: Denzil Minnan-Wong

ravel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell sat down with Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the economic development committee of Toronto, to discuss the impact of SARS on Toronto tourism.

Q:How badly is SARS hurting Toronto?

A:The hotel vacancy rates are high. The tour operators are suffering heavily. The restaurants in the downtown tourist areas are being hurt.

But if you were walking downtown, you can't see any difference. People aren't wearing masks. But if you talk to hoteliers or individuals in the restaurant and entertainment industries, they are certainly feeling the impact.

Q:Has it gotten worse since the second World Health Organization advisory?

A: We had to pull back our ad campaign. We found that when you have headlines on the front page saying there are new cases, it doesn't make much sense to try to attract people to come as tourists.

We learned a lesson -- we thought we had turned the corner, but we hadn't. So this time we're going to wait until we have a higher degree of certainty. We'll wait for the all-clear from the Medical Officer of Health.

Q:What is the city's strategy for dealing with the loss of tourism revenue?

A: Our governments, provincial and federal, are trying to mount a recovery campaign.

We are spending at least $225 million over a two-year period. Our information tells us that a lot of folks aren't looking [to visit] Toronto this season.

So we are focusing on Torontonians. We'll have to depend on them to become tourists in their own city.

Q:Is there a danger of many companies being unable to survive this, and will the government bail out struggling businesses?

A: There is the danger of businesses going out. The best thing we can do is to encourage people -- especially Torontonians -- to come out and spend money.

Promoting the city's attractions is the best way to encourage tourism. I don't think we'll be providing direct financial assistance to those struggling companies, though.

Q:Can you save the summer season?

A: We're not expecting a high level of visitors. We'll be grateful for any tourism. But it's important that we face the reality that our leisure tourism will suffer this season.

Nevertheless, we may have some very exciting things coming out. We're planning some free [or] very inexpensive concerts this summer featuring the Rolling Stones, Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan and possibly Alanis Morissette.

And travel agents should know that right now there are some great bargains here.

Q:Is the Toronto Film Festival still on?

A: We are still hopeful. The film festival is in the fall, so we are going full speed ahead on that.

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