Are Canadian markets prepared for the 2010 tourism season?

With tourist season getting underway at most Canadian destinations, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety in the air. Last year was dismal for many in the hotel business and, this year, events seem to be conspiring against an already wounded industry. There’s the lingering effects of the recession, strict passport regulations in place for our American friends, Visa requirements for Mexican tourists, a buoyant Canadian dollar, an apprehensive labour market, not to mention the fire and brimstone — OK, volcanic ash — stranding Europeans. It’s not exactly a doomsday scenario, but it does give reason for pause.

Nevertheless, while several tourist traps may be left un-sprung this spring, don’t assume that Canada’s travel and tourism industry hasn’t been pounding the planet’s pavement in search of new visitors, as well as leveraging what’s left of the national Olympic spirit to drive Canadians to Tofino and St. Andrews this summer, instead of Maui and Madrid.

One beacon of hope for hoteliers across the country came recently from the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), when it released its annual Travel Intentions Survey. While the overall mood for leisure travel was not necessarily good, the results indicated that some 78 per cent of Canadians said they intended to travel within Canada in 2010. Adding to that glimmer of hope, HAC president Tony Pollard says there’s also a genuine sense of pent-up demand. “We’ve got almost half of those surveyed claiming they’re ‘vacation-deprived,’ which tells me that while people are still worried about their jobs, and they’re afraid to spend money on extended travel, they do plan to travel in 2010,” he says.

Looking abroad, Pollard points to signs of increased travel in several key markets. “The U.S. is still going to be important for us in terms of attracting visitors,” he says. “You always have to fish where the fish are. And, there remain opportunities in some of our other old, traditional markets. But, there are some new markets developing, too, and we could see some lift from the B.R.I.C. (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries.”

In terms of positioning Canada more prominently on the travel map in those developing markets, no event presented a clearer opportunity than the Olympic Games. This fact was not lost on the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC), which, through media events like the torch relay and other on-the-fly opportunities, specifically targeted emerging markets like Australia, Brazil and Korea.

However, CTC president Michelle McKenzie insists that the Olympic ‘afterglow,’ as the commission has dubbed it, will not be a generator of instant gratification or relief for the hotel sector. “Interest doesn’t translate immediately into sales,” she says. “That tends to play out over two years, so our strategy goes out to 2012, where I think we’ll see the greatest impact. That being said, we’re projecting a strong 2011, and some of the early numbers for 2010 look good.”

Regionally based tourism organizations are also jumping on the Olympic bandwagon, with Vancouver being the most logical beneficiary. But just like the CTC, the folks at Tourism Vancouver are also taking the long-view in their approach to travel post-Games. “We’re trying to use the Games as a catalyst, obviously, but the tourists we’re looking to draw are more broad-based,” says Paul Vallee, executive vice-president at Tourism Vancouver.

For longer-term travel, Vallee says his organization has remained on the offensive, booking a myriad of big conferences for the area. “The convention centre expansion right on the waterfront has been very successful for us, and we’ve been able to book some important conference business, like one coming up for 2,500 meeting planners, as well as hosting Cruise 360, a major conference for the cruise business, which is actually being held outside of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the first time,” he says. “These groups are travel influencers and the drivers of future demand. The residual impact on leisure travel is enormous.”

Despite being geographically removed from the site of the Winter Olympics, tourism boosters in Toronto and Montreal are also cautiously optimistic about the road ahead.
“Like most destinations, we’re experiencing a bounce-back so far in 2010,” says Andrew Weir, vice-president, Communications, with Tourism Toronto. “The recession affected attractions around the city a little differently, in that some were able to attract more locals than they might normally, but our hotels certainly felt the pinch. Thankfully, the first three months of this year have been very good so far, and even rate seems to be making a bit of a comeback,” he notes.

While Canada’s largest city may not have the momentum of an Olympic Games behind it, Weir says Toronto has been slowly building-up its own steam, and hopes to see some dividends this year from targeting a new set of increasingly sophisticated travellers. “We’ve been very aggressive in terms of marketing the city beyond our traditional drive markets. We think the biggest growth will be from other major urban centres across the U.S., Europe and South America, which should bring travellers who are looking for a higher-end experience,” an angle Weir acknowledges has been overlooked in the past. “It’s not our goal anymore to be a bargain-basement vacation. Toronto as a destination doesn’t cater to that any more. The new development going on [hotels like the Shangri-La, Ritz-Carlton, Trump and Thompson] helps raise the profile of the city, lifts the overall destination and changes the types of travellers we’re attracting.” In fact, in a recent New York Times piece on hot travel destinations, Toronto made the grade.

And what about the 78 per cent of Canadians looking to experience their own backyard? CTC’s McKenzie says she has high hopes, thanks to the raw patriotism we saw for two weeks in February.

“With the success of the games, there’s an opportunity with our “Locals Know” campaign, to entice Canadians just as they feel proud about their country. The two dovetail very nicely. I think it’s sad that we’ve raised a generation of Canadians who aspire to travel around the world before they’ve travelled here. Now, maybe they’ll be inspired to see Canada first.


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