The federal government is offering easy financing for the country's beleaguered tourism operators, which the minister in charge says should help companies mired in debt.

The sector has been among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, as international travel has plummeted and domestic travellers are largely staying close to home.

Even as public health restrictions ease, Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly says the tourism operators she has spoken with feel some anxiety, as July is almost halfway over.

What the government is now offering them is a mix of non-repayable grants of up to $100,000 or no-interest loans of up to $500,000 to finance capital improvements.

And at least one-tenth of the $500 million being rolled out will go to Indigenous tourism operators and organizations for things like workforce training or national projects and be non-repayable grants, responding to funding concerns from that part of the tourism sector.

Joly said the government hopes the money helps businesses in the sector avoid a debt spiral that could end in more companies closing their doors.

"This can be a pivotal moment for the tourism sector. We just need to make sure that the businesses survive," Joly said in an interview.

The budget promised an injection of $1 billion over three years, starting this fiscal year, for the tourism industry trying to rebuild revenues and ready themselves for the day when international travel restrictions ease.

It's why the funding is being aimed at projects that can help tourism operators, many of which are small or medium-sized businesses, find ways to earn more money during shoulder of off-seasons, or better respond to what travellers are looking for in terms of experience and health standards stemming from COVID-19.

Feds launch #tourism fund to help tourism businesses avoid spiral of debt, Joly says. #CDNPoli #COVID19 #TourismOperators

"It's being able to deal with the risk right now. But we know that there are lessons learned from the pandemic, and being able to stay open. So in that sense, it is a way to have a longer-term solution," Joly said.

Before that, though, the travel and tourism sector has been looking to the Liberals to detail a border reopening plan and recently pressed to have one long before an anticipated federal election call that would put a pause on most policy-making activities.

The spectre of an election is also casting a shadow over the mounds of ministerial spending announcements that have ramped up with the summer heat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested last week his government was in no rush to roll back border restrictions, especially for unvaccinated travellers who he said wouldn't be allowed in for some time.

And on the issue of how tourism and festival operators might handle the thorny political issue of vaccine passports, Joly said each jurisdiction in the country has a different approach.

In Quebec, she noted, the provincial government's musing about such a validation document may be an incentive to make sure people get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Federally, though, the focus is on putting the funding in place for the sector to mitigate health risks when foreign travellers are more easily allowed into the country.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2021.

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