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Why Alberta is giving the tourism industry its own immigration stream

As Alberta hopes to more than double the size of its tourism economy in the next decade, the province is taking a new step to fill labour gaps by giving the industry its own dedicated immigration stream. Some critics say it could have unintended consequences.

Move cheered by industry groups but one economist calls it ‘government coddling’

A help wanted sign is pictured Banff, Alta. as pedestrians look on.
A 'Help Wanted' sign is pictured Banff, Alta., in the summer of 2022, as pedestrians walk past. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

As Alberta hopes to more than double the size of its tourism economy in the next decade, the provincial government is taking a new step to fill labour gaps by giving the industry its own dedicated immigration stream

The industry hopes the program will help fix its long-standing labour shortage, but critics say the program could have unintended consequences. 

Meanwhile, a national tourism industry group is watching the new policy and hopes to see it adopted more widely. 

"It's a great initiative for us to consider as a kind of pilot example … [that] we can build on and, if we're lucky, extend the model beyond Alberta," said Philip Mondor, president and CEO of Tourism HR Canada. 

Some provinces, like Saskatchewan, have their own immigration policies in place aimed at hospitality workers. But Mondor believes these other policies haven't been on the scale of what Alberta has announced.

The new immigration stream is aimed at temporary foreign workers who are already working in the province's tourism industry and wish to stay in Canada permanently. 

Workers in 18 job categories will be eligible, the province told CBC News, from cooks and cleaners to dry cleaners and tour guides.

How it works

A person walks into the Rimrock Resort Hotel in Banff, Alta.
A person walks into the Rimrock Resort Hotel in Banff. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The new stream falls under Alberta's provincial nominee program, which nominates people for permanent residence in Alberta.

Temporary foreign workers will be eligible if they've worked in tourism and hospitality for at least six months and have a permanent job offer in hand from an approved employer.

Businesses in food and accommodation have already been able to hire many more temporary foreign workers in recent years, after the federal government tripled the industry's hiring cap. 

But this new immigration stream means at least some of those workers will have a clearer path to staying in the province permanently. 

"Ultimately, there is a shortage of labour in this particular area, and we were contacted and we were lobbied by the industry to do something," said Alberta Immigration Minister Muhammad Yaseen in an interview with CBC News. 

The Alberta Hospitality and Lodging Association attributes its protracted hiring woes to "perceptions" about the industry, according to president Tracy Douglas-Blowers. She said it can also be tough in Alberta to lure people away from the oil and gas industry, which offers better wages, and to find workers in small towns, which have small pools of labour. 

"For a number of years, hotels have been sort of underneath a bit of a structural labour shortage, and that goes back to long before the the pandemic," said Douglas-Blowers in an interview.

She said this new program will help.

Alberta was given 9,750 nominations last year under the provincial nominee program, said Yaseen. He expects nominations under the new tourism sector stream will make up about eight to 10 per cent of the program's total. 

Pros and cons for workers

A Help Wanted sign in Banff, Alta. in the summer of 2022.
A 'Help Wanted' sign is pictured in Banff in the summer of 2022. (Karina Zapata/CBC)

The change is good news for workers and employers in Rocky Mountain resort towns, said Karli Fleury, with Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association.

"These are real people who desperately want to make Banff or make Alberta their home, and previously we've had no possible way to support them," said Fleury, who is the association's director of workforce and destination initiatives. 

Jason Foster, an associate professor at Athabasca University who studies the experience of migrant workers, has mixed feelings.

On the one hand, he said, any additional avenues that temporary foreign workers can use to stay in Canada will be a positive step for them.

But giving bosses more power over their employees' immigration status isn't always a good thing, he said. 

"It actually also gives the employer a new threat, 'Do as I say or I'm not going to help you get your PR,'" said Foster, who specializes in human resources and labour relations. 

Mondor, with Tourism HR Canada, said there are "reasonable" concerns to be had with connecting immigration to a particular employer, but he said the industry has made "enormous efforts" to root out bad actors and that problems are few and far between. 

'Coddling' businesses

Another concern for Mikal Skuterud, a University of Waterloo economist, is that the program means employers will no longer need to raise wages and make their jobs more appealing to attract workers. 

If a tourism job offers a glimmer of hope at achieving permanent residency, people will work in these jobs no matter how bad they are, Skuterud said. 

"It's just a way to keep wages down and it's cheap labour," said Skuterud.

"Many economists will tell you Canada's economic problem is there's not enough competition, that we coddle businesses — well, here's a perfect example of it."

Mondor, for his part, said there are "competitive practices" happening within the tourism industry and the sector offers plenty of opportunity for career development and well-paid work. 

The average full-time income for a person working full-time in tourism in Canada is $47,925, according to Tourism HR Canada's 2023 compensation survey, though wages vary by region and by job. 

For example, the average full-time hotel front desk clerk in Alberta earns around $41,000, the report said, while restaurant and food service managers earn $63,122.

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The new tourism immigration stream is set to kick off March 1. Minister Yaseen said the government will measure its success by how many people apply. 

Mondor believes other provinces will be keeping an eye on Alberta as hiring gets underway. 

"I think that eyes are watching this one.… I think it's a bold step, and I think it's going to really have some play outside of Alberta," he said. 

Full list of eligible jobs

According to a statement from the Alberta Ministry of Immigration and Multiculturalism, the new immigration stream targets 18 jobs: 

  • Program leaders and instructors in recreation, sport and fitness. The median wage, according to the Statistics Canada Job Bank, is $19.23.
  • Restaurant and food service managers. Median wage $26.44
  • Accommodation service managers. Median wage $34.67
  • Food service supervisors. Median wage $18
  • Chefs. Median wage $19
  • Cooks. Median wage $17.
  • Maitres d'hotel and hosts/hostesses. Median wage $15
  • Bartenders. Median wage $17.50
  • Hotel front desk clerks. Median wage $17
  • Tour and travel guides. Median wage $18
  • Outdoor sport and recreational guides. Median wage $18.50
  • Food and beverage servers. Median wage $17.
  • Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations. Median wage $15.
  • Support occupations in accommodation, travel and facilities setup services. Median wage $17
  • Light duty cleaners. Median wage $18.
  • Specialized cleaners. Median wage $18.
  • Janitors, caretakers and heavy-duty cleaners. Median wage $21.
  • Dry cleaning, laundry and related occupations. Median wage $16.50.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paula Duhatschek

Reporter/Editor

Born and raised in Calgary, Paula Duhatschek is a CBC Calgary reporter with a focus on business. She previously ran a CBC pop-up bureau in Canmore, Alta., and worked for CBC News in Kitchener and in London, Ont. You can reach her at paula.duhatschek@cbc.ca.

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