Montreal tourism industry may struggle to keep up with soaring summer demand

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While Tourisme Montréal chief executive Yves Lalumière is confident hotels will be up to the task, he sounds less sanguine about the prospects for local restaurants.

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Tourists are coming back, but will Montreal be able to cope?

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With airports, hotels and restaurants all struggling to hire staff fast enough, some in the industry have their doubts.

Quebec’s biggest city could draw as many as 7.5 million out-of-town visitors this year, more than double last year’s tally, Tourisme Montréal chief executive Yves Lalumière said Tuesday in an interview. As recently as March, his organization was expecting no more than 6.5 million tourists in 2022. Summer tourism traditionally accounts for about two-thirds of annual numbers.

Following the lifting of public health measures and border restrictions, tourist interest is being stoked by the return of key attractions such as Formula One’s Canadian Grand Prix and the Montreal International Jazz Festival. All told, some 65 festivals are scheduled to take place around town this summer, while new attractions such as Place Ville Marie’s massive art installation The Ring should also draw plenty of visitors. Business tourism is coming out of its pandemic-induced slumber, too, with approximately 250 meetings scheduled to take place in Montreal over the next few months.

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“We’re pleasantly surprised,” Lalumière said. “Bookings have been very strong, much higher than what we were expecting. With our festivals, we want to be the epicentre of the Canadian tourism recovery. Big cities have suffered greatly, but we think we can rebound as soon as this year.”

Local hotels should be about 70 per cent full from June 1 to Aug. 31, according to Tourisme Montréal forecasts. Three weekends — including the Grand Prix weekend (June 17 to 19) and the Osheaga music festival (July 29 to 31) — are almost fully booked, Lalumière said.

The tourist influx promises to test Montreal’s capabilities as a host city. About 3,000 hotel jobs in the metropolitan area are vacant, down from about 5,000 two months ago, said Jean-Sébastien Boudreault, head of the Hotel Association of Greater Montreal.

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Combined, approximately 32,000 hotel and restaurant positions across Quebec are unfilled ahead of the summer season, industry officials said last week. That figure includes about 22,000 restaurant jobs, 7,000 of which are for chefs.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge this summer to cope with this wave of tourists,” Boudreault said in an interview. “We’re trying to recruit as much as we can, but we’re in the middle of a labour shortage. It’s going to be complex. Many hotel staffers are going to be working multiple jobs. You could even see managers doing the rooms.”

While Lalumière is confident hotels will be up to the task, he sounds less sanguine about the prospects for local restaurants.

“Restaurants are small businesses, and many are struggling to be fully staffed,” he said. “I have my doubts. The next month will be decisive.”

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Also in flux is the situation at Trudeau airport, where delays have swollen as traveller numbers have jumped.

Passenger volumes at Quebec’s busiest airport soared more than fivefold to 2.2 million in the first quarter of 2022. Through the first four months of the year, traffic amounted to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, “which leads us to believe that the summer will be busier than what we had originally forecast,” Éric Forest, a spokesperson for airport operator Aéroports de Montréal, said Tuesday via email.

For several weeks now, ADM has been warning passengers to expect delays at the airport’s checkpoints. It recommends that ticket holders arrive three hours before their flight’s departure, especially during peak periods.

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ADM blames the delays on the COVID situation and the labour shortage that the airline industry is facing. “ADM is working with its partners to continually optimize the processes in place,” Forest said without elaborating.

Because of the workforce scarcity, “air travellers are going to wait longer and longer, and the peak season for vacations hasn’t even started,” predicts Dominic Lemieux, Quebec head of the United Steelworkers union. His group represents about 1,000 screeners at Quebec airports including Montreal’s Trudeau, which are negotiating a new collective agreement.

Inbound travellers are also being asked to show patience. Random COVID-19 testing and public health questions at customs mean it now takes four times longer on average to process passengers at the country’s airports than it did before the pandemic, Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airports Council, told The Canadian Press in a recent interview. In some cases, people are being kept on planes for over an hour after they land because there isn’t enough space to hold the lineups of travellers, Pasher said.

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Some 56 international destinations are now being served by flights out of Montreal, down from 89 in 2019. New destinations this summer will include Milan, Nashville, San Diego and Seattle.

Cruise ships, meanwhile, are scheduled to make a comeback at the Port of Montreal. An estimated 16 ships are expected to dock here this summer, and Tourisme Montréal estimates the 45 visits will generate about $30 million in economic benefits.

“The huge ships aren’t going to be coming to Montreal, so we’re working mostly on the luxury clientele, the 1,000 passenger ships,” Lalumière said. “This will be a transition year.”

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