Talk to any tourism stakeholder, and undoubtedly you’ll feel their frustration about what’s happening on the domestic tourism front. Is it any wonder? Canada — seen by many global travellers as a top-notch tourist destination — generated 3.5 million fewer international visitors in 2010 than in 2000. While we ranked second in the world in terms of arrivals in 1970, we now place 18th, despite a new Federal Tourism Strategy designed to address the problem of declining tourist visits. And if that’s not bad enough, the Canadian Tourism Commission’s (CTC) budget has been slashed, from $100 million in 2001, with further reductions to $57.8 million in 2013/’14. That’s a 42-per-cent cut in little more than a decade.

The World Economic Forum’s most recent Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Study shows Canada’s fifth-place standing in 2010 slipped to ninth place in 2011. With tourism marketing budgets in most parts of the country perilously under-funded, the future of tourism in Canada seems uncertain.  

Dick Brown, executive director of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, is extremely dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. “It’s very disappointing the federal government hasn’t embraced tourism as an opportunity to respond to the economic shifts taking place globally. As our manufacturing sector disappears to off-shore and cheaper locations,” says Brown, “we’re not taking advantage of the growth in worldwide tourism, nor do we seem to be serious about growing visitation to Canada.

“Marketing is the lifeblood of tourism. The budget the CTC is being asked to operate with, is at a level that will see Canada’s position as a destination of choice, continue to erode,” Brown warns. “Any Destination Marketing Organization — local or national — requires adequate, predictable and sustainable funding while strategically marketing its destination.”

Canada is the world’s leading country brand — a designation conferred on us by England-based FutureBrand — but we’ve been unable to convert that distinction into a more favourable outcome. The questions remains, does it simply boil down to inadequate marketing budgets? During this Olympic year, perhaps tourism needs an “Own-the-Podium” program: a mission to set high performance goals and provide top-up funding to programs originally designed to help Canadian athletes reach the top of their game.

There are numerous “strategy killers” that undermine Canada’s value-creation efforts. These include passport and visa requirements, shifting currency valuations, price competitiveness, Canada’s environmental reputation, knowledge about Canada and genuine appreciation of the importance of tourism and the efforts to effectively market globally. Obviously, these concerns must be addressed and resolved if we want a vibrant tourism industry. The most significant culprits, however, are insidious. Tourism’s struggle, much like those faced in sports, is about overcoming obstacles; it is a battle against ourselves. Daniel Laliberté, GM, Marriott, Ottawa agrees. “The current pace of work and life has everyone working harder, but often in isolation. Many of us in the hotel business seem to have lost our sense of community — people working together and knowing others are there to support them,” says the hotelier. “Compared to other industries, collaborative and innovative tourism clusters seem few and far between. Fortunately in Ottawa, we’re getting better at coming together to resolve our competitiveness problems.”

However, numerous factors distract, deter and divert us from making clear strategic choices. Some of the factors include complacency, hidden biases embedded in organizational systems and failure to stretch the limits of what we’re capable of achieving, as well as a sense of helplessness. Michael Crockett, chair of Ottawa Tourism’s Board of Directors and VP Business Development and Marketing of Ottawa’s International Airport Authority, says, “the failure inherent in strategies is not overbearing bureaucracy and factors beyond our control, as much as it’s misguided views as to our strengths; an inability to develop rigorous strategies that are economically grounded and results-oriented; the lack of empowerment to execute, particularly on the frontline, and rigid strategies that lose their relevancy or fail to address unexpected contingencies.”

In addressing the problems beyond our control, traditionally we’ve relied on industry associations, such as the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC) and the Tourism Industry Association (TIAC). Building on a strong government-relations program, Tony Pollard, president of HAC, states its “goal this year is to have hoteliers across the country meet with 250 MPs. All our provincial associations and corporate members are fully engaged in addressing the need for increased funding for CTC to $135 million. The options are to reinvest international visitors’ GST, and/or create an international visitor-arrival levy” — it’s not a perfect option, because it would further escalate air transport costs.

Obviously, limited resources represent the “new normal,” but tourism is a vital export industry on which communities depend. International tourism marketing is a vital ingredient in ensuring Canada’s competitiveness. David Goldstein, president and CEO of TIAC, recently urged members to contact their MPs, so they can “give face to the story of how vital tourism is in their community and to point out how urgent the need is for a more competitively funded CTC.” Unless change is imminent, the current Federal Tourism Strategy will become just another pious sentiment.

Ultimately, re-strategizing and reformulating policies at national, provincial and regional levels are first priorities, but its future will be determined by how quickly tourism organizations and communities adapt to the “new normal,” and transform to truly create a “value add” for visitors, capturing value for shareholders and community stakeholders.

If “Own the Podium” is to become a rallying cry for tourism, it’s essential people take independent action. When feedback is encouraged, allowing for free-flowing knowledge, vicious cycles become virtuous.

One destination mastering the attributes of “smarter tourism” is Ottawa. Noel Buckley, executive director of Ottawa Tourism emphasizes, “any success Ottawa is having can really be attributed to the desire of the key partners and stakeholders, including the city, OGHA, Ottawa Tourism, the NCC, the Ottawa Airport, and the private sector to genuinely collaborate on marketing, selling, promoting and building — both hard and soft infrastructure — the destination.”

Ottawa realizes its critical challenge is in mobilizing individual commitment, engendering organizational capability, building more collaborative and innovative cultures, engaging customers and eschewing mediocrity for magnificence. Tourism’s gateway to growth, therefore, has to begin with a renewed sense of purpose, which ignites the potential of, and passion within, corporations and communities. It must excite collective imaginations, inspire hope, create compelling destinations, deliver inspired hospitality, operate sustainably and ensure a shared value for everyone. Tourism thrives where it’s appreciated, where communities and the collaborative efforts of our tourism enterprises constantly affirm brand promises. However, it was a 2003 marketing and branding study that grabbed everyone’s attention. The study concluded Ottawa was perceived as a dull government enclave where the sidewalks rolled up after sunset. The unflattering commentary galvanized people into action. A decade later it has transformed into a vibrant city.

Ottawa’s charm largely resides in the city’s sites and events. There’s Parliament Hill, the National Art Centre, Museum of Civilization, the Rideau Canal and the ByWard Market. Marquee events, such as Canada Day celebrations and Winterlude, are part of the city’s appeal. All destinations boast attractions, but the key differentiators in Ottawa/Gatineau is its seasonal diversity, abundance, distinctiveness, centrality, aesthetic appeal and economic and environmental sustainability.

Many would argue the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) mandate to develop and animate a portion of the Ottawa/Gatineau region provides a distinctive advantage most communities can’t match. “A clear sense of purpose that incorporates, facilitates and eases tourism development, and helps renew or refresh Ottawa’s brand,” is the distinguishing factor, argues Guy Laflamme, executive director of the NCC. While all communities practice similar planning practices, it’s NCC’s “use and application of sustainable development, planning and processes that set benchmark standards,” adds LaFlamme.

The vitality of tourism within the Ottawa/Gatineau region today is largely attributed to leadership. The late Jean Piggott, once chairwoman of the NCC, expanded its mandate to promote the capital as a symbol of national pride and a Canadian’s second home. The city’s current mayor, Jim Watson, believes it’s natural to be “tourism’s biggest booster and roving ambassador.” Watson, instrumental in bringing the FIFA World Cup to the city in 2015, is working hard to make Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 a stunning success. Newly strengthened relationships with key tourism markets, particularly China, has also boosted his city’s fortunes. “The twinning arrangement between Beijing and Ottawa has strengthened our economic development, educational and cultural links with China.”

Many people contribute to Ottawa’s tourism industry. The executive directors and members of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association (OGHA), the Ottawa Tourism Association, the Tourism Development Council, the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, the Airport Authority and the National Capital Commission are leaders in their own right. Each group works diligently to build a highly engaged and collaborative approach to tourism, using a team approach dedicated to minimizing duplication of effort, applying more rigour in managing tourism. Other contributions include developing new offerings (and improving existing ones), experimenting with new technologies (smartphone apps) and pursuing additional marketing funds. “Our Destination Marketing Fund program is so much better for Ottawa Tourism,” emphasizes Brown. “We don’t have to rely on city hall’s annual budget.”

Clearly, Ottawa’s results have been exemplary. A recent economic development study revealed hotels generate $1.1 billion in economic activity. Hotel occupancy during 2011 was up 3.1 points to 70.7 per cent, well above the national average, despite a 25-per-cent increase in supply between 2000 and 2012. The Ottawa Airport Authority, recipient of many awards, boasts two new direct flights from New York City and Washington, D.C. Is it any wonder Ottawa has been identified by Moneysense magazine as Canada’s best place to live for the past three years? Some might conclude Ottawa’s strategy is brilliant, in contrast to the failings of the nation.

Ottawa’s experience suggests communities must take a definitive leadership role with regard to tourism. Apathy must be overcome and strategic management has to replace the genius of muddling through. Tourism requires a strong sense of purpose to guide development, improve quality of life and enhance the visitor experience. As Michele McKenzie, president and CEO of the CTC, says, “International visitors spent $16 billion in Canada last year, but there’s so much untapped potential globally that national tourism marketers see huge economic benefits, job creation, future investment and prosperity in continuing our pursuit of the long-haul, high-yield traveller.” She says the goal remains constant: “to grow tourism export revenues for Canada in markets of highest return where the Canada brand leads.”

But, to do so, the CTC needs money. “Funding the CTC is more important than ever,” says David Goldstein, president, Tourism Industry Association of Canada. “Tourism continues to grow globally, but Canada’s share continues to erode. We have slipped from seventh to 18th in the world for international visitors, and we are one of only five countries to experience a drop in arrivals in the last 10 years. With less money to promote Canada in key markets, we will unquestionably struggle to take advantage of the growth in international travel.”

Ultimately, if we are to succeed, leaders have to set a challenging yet inspiring agenda and develop initiatives and programs that spur destination excellence. McKenzie believes Canada has a lot to gain by promoting its tourism industry abroad. “We know future growth and investment requires a competitive international strategy, and we’ll continue to push creative boundaries to develop inventive ways to inspire travellers to make Canada their first choice,” says McKenzie. “We can compete as long as we continue to leverage marketing dollars in lucrative markets, promoting our brand through outstanding international programs.”

By creating aspirations for a desirable future, communities and tourism organizations will feel confident and supported. It’s similar to empowering athletes to the top of their game. Ultimately, our collective ability to “Own the Podium” depends on how well we deliver remarkable experiences and performances, community-by-community — that’s what will create fanatical advocates. Believe. It is possible.


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