Analysis by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
I set out to write an article saying that all of the money the United States was pouring into marketing itself as a destination was going to have a residual effect for Canada that could be beneficial. Tony Pollard set me straight.
“We are facing a crisis situation,” the head of the Hotel Association of Canada told me on Tuesday. “At a time when our federal tourism agency’s budget is being cut, the Americans are outgunning us in their spend. They’re going after us with very creative marketing, and you can’t blame them. It’s the smart thing for them to do.”
Pollard and other tourism officials I spoke to agreed with a recent report in the Globe & Mail that called the American push a significant threat to a Canadian tourism industry struggling to gain market share despite the nation’s sterling reputation abroad. The World Economic Forum’s 2011 Travel & Tourism Report, which rates nations on their attractiveness for tourism, ranked Canada ninth in the world. The nation has been No. 1 for two straight years in the Future Brand Index that measures favourability and trustworthiness by frequent travellers. Earlier this month, the British Council, a charitable research organization, said a survey of young travellers showed that safety was the fifth-most important factor when deciding on a destination (in 2007 safety ranked 17th) and Canada is viewed as one of the safest, most welcoming nations on the planet.
Yet, this country has fallen behind Mexico, Turkey, Singapore, and even Malaysia in annual global tourism rankings, dropping to 16th in 2011 from a high of seventh overall in 2002.
“You can’t say that it’s a currency issue,” Pollard said, noting that the rise in value of the Canadian dollar is the one factor that’s most often cited for the decline. “Currencies of any nation will go up and down.”
Putting the blame on the loonie’s ascent is especially weak when you consider the success of Tourism Toronto, a privately held organization whose diligent and ambitious marketing efforts have successfully driven the city it represents to record levels in both business and leisure arrivals. It’s done so largely through a successful re-focusing of its target demographic, aiming now at high-end travellers rather than weekend shoppers from border cities.
With the advent of Brand USA, an initiative launched by the Barack Obama administration, America began an international promotional push last month to showcase itself as a country eager to welcome the world. It’s a contrast to the image the nation has held since 9/11. Increased security measures and border officials who can come across as boorish led to a drastic decline in travel to the US even before the recession dented its tourism industry further.
The New York Times reported in April that Brand USA will have a budget of $150 million US, with funding coming from the US federal government and the private sector. Meanwhile, the federal budget for the Canadian Tourism Commission has been slashed to $72 million CDN this year and will shrink by approximately $14.2 million further next year. Pollard did say that the private sector in Canada does match the public federal funding about dollar for dollar, meaning that the 2012 tourism budget isn’t that far off the amount of money Brand USA has to wield. But when one side of the border is dramatically cranking up its investment and the other side is collapsing its spend, the potential consequences are worrisome.
I thought, perhaps foolishly, that Brand USA could allow for some shrewd piggyback promotions on the part of Canadian tourism boards.
Nik Wallenda’s phenomenal walk across Niagara Falls last week demonstrated how Canada and the US can benefit from sharing the immense wealth of natural wonders and cultural attractions they enjoy. A New Orleans-Quebec City tour geared to Europeans who want to see how French colonial cultures diverge? A Big Sky Country visit to both Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park and Banff National Park in Alberta? A Chinese heritage itinerary that includes stops in San Francisco, the Oregon coast, and Vancouver? There are possibilities for cooperation, but not enough to sway opinion that the arrival of America as a serious tourism marketer is a terribly bad thing for Canada.
“There are tour operators that will package Canada and the US together, and maybe there will be more of that sort of thing. But while it may appear to be a silver lining, it’s a very small silver lining to this,” Pollard said.
Canadian tourism brought in $78.8 billion in revenue last year and government officials have set $100 billion in revenue as a target by 2015, despite the dwindling federal budget. The chances of it reaching that mark may not be great should current trends continue, particularly the one that has seen Canadians take five million flights out of neighbouring US airports. Those who have done so have protested with their pocketbooks. They’ll spend gas money and risk a long border wait rather than pay the excessive airfares Air Canada and Westjet charge in part because the cost of airport rents and government fees are so high.
Pollard said HAC is among the many advocates for reform of Canada’s airport economics. “We have a very vigorous, concentrated lobbying campaign” aimed at parliamentarians who can push for measures that will lead to lower airfare costs for Canadians and international visitors.
“We want to restore Canada back into top 10 in global tourism, which is where it belongs,” he said. “With the pace of government, I’m not going to say that’s going to happen any time soon, but we are approaching a crisis situation where things seem to be coming to a head and that might mean we get change, hopefully.”
SOME GOOD TOURISM NEWS FOR CANADA
Amid all the gloom-and-doom talk of overpriced Canadian airfares, languishing marketing efforts, and depleted tourism statistics during 2011’s fourth-quarter (read: winter), were these buoyant numbers recently released:
- Foreign travel to Canada was up by 9.3% year-over-year in March (the most recent month data was released), according to the Canadian Tourism Commission report. A total of 841,391 international visitors came to the country in March. Overnight arrivals saw “an extraordinary 20% growth” from key overseas markets. German overnight arrivals grew 30.8% year-over-year, reaching their highest level since 1997.
- Nearly two-thirds of Canadians who will vacation this summer will do so within this country, a BMO survey conducted by Leger Marketing reported. The survey showed that 63% of Canadians intend to travel within the country this year, compared to 57% in 2011.
Bottom line: Airline travel in this country is ridiculously expensive and the spending cuts to tourism marketing by the government are short-sighted. Those are the enemies to Canada’s travel industry, much more so than what the Americans are doing to attract more people to their 50 states.
TRAVEL TIP OF THE WEEK
If you’ve never been to Quebec City during St. Jean de Baptiste Day, make the effort to get there this weekend. The National Holiday of Quebec is just as much fun as Canada Day in Ottawa. The Plains of Abraham are alive with joyous singing and the beautiful streets of Old Quebec will teem with activity on Saturday night, the eve of the annual June 24 holiday, and Grand Allée outside the walls will be full of late-night revellry until near dawn. If the Chateau Frontenac is too expensive, try Relais Charles-Alexandre, a very nice boutique hotel in the new part of the city. It’s on Grand Allée, has nicely appointed rooms, a warm staff, and exceptional rates, with some rooms costing less than $100 per night.