Canadian Tourism: An industry in crisis

1-IMG_6860They were calling it “the lost decade.”

Tourism officials gathered in Toronto last week for the annual Canadian Tourism Marketing Summit. And it wasn’t pretty talk.

This country is in desperate need of a new tourism strategy. So far, the Harper government in Ottawa seems oblivious.

We thought we were perhaps riding high after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. But the statistics tell a very sad story. In 2002, Canada ranked eighth in the world in international tourist arrivals, with 19.6 million visitors. That was good for number eight in the world.

By 2011, the year after the Vancouver Games, that number had slipped to 16 million; way down at 18th in the world.

Lest you think this is because of some worldwide trend, check this out: international tourism arrivals for the entire world rose by a huge amount in that period, going from 691 million to 980 million. The U.S. from 2002 to 2011 saw its international tourist arrivals go from 51.2 million to 62.3 million; roughly a 10 per cent hike. Impressive, but still not enough for a U.S. government that has launched a MASSIVE campaign to increase visitor arrivals.

Spain in that period went from 46.4 million to 56.7 million; an increase of more than 20 per cent. Canada’s tourism numbers, meanwhile, DROPPED more than 18 per cent! This despite the fact that surveys consistently rank Canada as having one of the best tourism “brands” in the world.

People like us plenty. They just don’t come see us. And that means huge losses – or potential missed profits – for our hotels and restaurants and tourist attractions from sea to sea to sea.

The UNWTO has called tourism the fourth fastest growing industry in the world. Yet Canada still treats tourism as being as important as fighting gum disease, handing the tourism portfolio off to junior minister after junior minister with all the national profile of a Huntsville dogcatcher.

1-IMG_1041Canadian tourism officials aren’t sugar-coating the issue.

Speaking at the tourism summit at the Eaton Chelsea Hotel last week, one leading tourism official said Canada “is underperforming on a lot of fronts.”

“It’s not selective underperforming, it’s across the board,” he said.

Officials said some Canadians blame the security changes since 9-11 for the fact that Americans aren’t visiting Canada the way they used to. Others say it’s because of the Canadian dollar’s relative strength or the fact that not as many Americans hold passports as Canadians.

It’s all B.S., said one official.

The strength of the Canadian dollar (until recently, anyway) might be an issue to some, but the passport issue is a red herring. There are currently more than 120 million Americans with passports, and the percentage of Americans who have them has gone up by 31 per cent since 2007.

“The fact is we haven’t been good enough. Americans are travelling, but they’re not travelling here.”

Canadian tourism types have been pushing the Harper government to re-invest in tourism in this country. Specifically, they want to re-engage the U.S. marketplace.

Because of massive cuts to their budget by the Harper Tories, the Canadian Tourism Commission a few years ago decided to leave U.S. marketing to cities and provinces. They reasoned they didn’t have the money to target visitors around the world, so the decision was made that the CTC would focus on emerging markets like Brazil, China, Russia and India.

1-IMG_7965It’s been working to some degree, but the U.S. numbers are bad. And they are, and probably always will be, our main source of tourism dollars. So now they want to get back into the U.S. market, back to where they once belonged.

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada is pushing for a new program called Connecting America that would see a new three-year $35 million a year investment by the federal government. That money would be matched by industry; something I think Harper – any government, to be fair – would find attractive.

It’s a significant investment, but studies suggest spending $105 million on U.S. tourism would bring in double that amount in tax revenues. And that’s what I call a healthy return on your investment.

Canadian tourism types are conducting studies of U.S. travellers over the next couple months. They’ll collect that information and then get back to the Harper government at a later date.

The goal is to get back to the 19.6 million figure in international visitors, perhaps by 2017, when Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary. Or maybe by the year after that.

It’s ambitious. But sitting around waiting for Americans to cross the border hasn’t been working. And it’s time we get serious about this.


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