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Tourism recovery is priority No. 1 for new TOTA boss

Indisputably, job No. 1 for Ellen Walker-Matthews is helping the Thompson Okanagan tourism sector rebound from a 16-month pandemic and summer of extreme heat, wildfires and smoke.

"Absolutely," said Walker-Matthews, who was officially appointed CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association on Wednesday.

"Recovery is my No. 1 priority. The pandemic was challenging to say the least and it's been followed by this challenging summer."

As an association that represents 4,500 tourism businesses in the region, TOTA's biggest asset currently is the Tourism Resiliency Program, which provides consulting for tourism operators and points them in the right direction for financial aid, finding staff amid this labour shortage, digital marketing and communications.

</who>The Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association's new CEO, Ellen Walker-Matthews, is pictured here with the association's chairman, Michael Ballingall of Big White Ski Resort.

While this summer's heat, wildfires and smoke would generally scare off tourists, Walker-Matthews said tourists are currently here in droves.

"I think visitors are more resilient now post-pandemic and they are wanting to travel and come to the Thompson Okanagan and enjoy themselves regardless," she said.

It's important that tourism surge back in the Thompson Okanagan because pre-pandemic it was the region's biggest economic engine attracting 3.5 million visitors a year who spent $2 billion.

The region's top five sectors list is rounded out by high technology, which is estimated to have an annual economic impact of close to $2 billion, construction-real estate, retail-trade and agriculture-wine.

Overall, the core of the Thompson Okanagan's appeal as a tourist destination is it's incredible diversity backed up by (usually) ideal four-seasons weather, stunning mountain-and-valley scenery and lakes and rivers.

Throughout the region, there's an array of options from simple sun and beach, watersports, wineries and breweries and golf to skiing, outdoor adventure, restaurants and culture.

The Thompson Okanagan has it all from sophisticated cities with all the amenities (including an international airport in Kelowna) to wide-open spaces where you won't bump into anyone else.

While Walker-Matthews was appointed to TOTA's top job Wednesday, she's actually been at the association for 12 years, working her way up from consumer marketing to vice-president of stewardship, senior vice-president and for the past seven months as interim CEO.

In December, she became the interim when previous CEO Glenn Mandziuk, who held the job for a dozen years, resigned for personal reasons.

"In the past (seven) months, (Walker-Matthews) has continued to demonstrate the leadership qualities that both the sector and our organization require as we forge our way through the COVID pandemic and look to create a strong path moving forward," said TOTA chair Michael Ballingall, who is also a vice-president of Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna.

Before joining TOTA, Walker-Matthews, who has lived in Summerland for the past 29 years, had a 30-year career in hotels with the Canadian Pacific (now Fairmont) and Delta chains.

TOTA has an annual budget of around $2 million ($1 million from Destination BC and the rest from grants and programs) to market the Thompson Okanagan to the world as a tourist destination, represent 4,500 tourism businesses in the region and maximize the tourism industry's positive economic, social, cultural and environmental impact.

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