Thursday, 26 December 2013

5 Reasons Northern Alberta Needs A Tourism Makeover

For the record, I love the new Travel Alberta marketing campaign "Remember To Breathe." It's a great catchphrase for a province with an enviable treasure-trove of awe-inspiring scenery and interesting things to do. Here's my problem with this ad, though. The imagery in it is overwhelmingly biased towards the southern part of the province. (For the record, I'm referring to the Edmonton-Jasper corridor as 'central' in this post.) Not to disparage the beauty of the province's southern prairies and Badlands or the majesty of Waterton and Banff or even Calgary's ever-more-impressive skyline, but is there really nothing north of Edmonton worth visiting?

Endless forest, dancing lights in Wood Buffalo National Park
(source: National Post)
Alberta, it's worth mentioning, is enormous. At 661,848 square kilometers in size it's larger than France or Ukraine and it would be the 41st largest country by land mass (between Burma and Afghanistan) were it to be independent. And like the aforementioned countries, Alberta's land mass is one of epic diversity, but as a result of a number of factors (relative population density, proximity to the United States and major rail lines, the economic ascendency of Calgary etc.) tourism in the province has been all but limited to its southern half. It's as though the southern half were France and the northern half were Afghanistan or Burma!

But unlike the latter two countries, northern Alberta's tourism woes cannot be blamed on wars, banditry, local insurgencies or xenophobic dictatorships intent on shutting out the world. Nor can it be blamed on a lack of attractions. Take, for example, Wood Buffalo National Park: Canada's largest national park and the second largest in the world (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983), home to the world's largest herd of free-roaming wood bison and one of only two nesting sites for the whooping crane. Or Peace River Country: a vast stretch of aspen parkland spanning northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia and crucible of the Fur Trade. There's the historic hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta's oldest continually inhabited settlement and governing hub for the region's largest First Nations, the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan.

Grass dancers at Lac La Biche Powwow (source: Facebook)
There are great festivals too, like Slave Lake's North Country Fair - a hippie love-in/folk music festival on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake and Fort McMurray's YMM ArtFest, as well as the region's numerous Aboriginal-themed festivities (most notably Fort Mac's Métis Fest and National Aboriginal Day festivities). There are fishing, hunting and nature tours all across the region's endless lake-studded boreal forest landscape, including trips to remote fishing camps where your chances of encountering another human being are next to zero. And, of course, there are aerial tours of the region's most economically important - and controversial - feature, the Athabasca Oil Sands, tours which do much to quell the notion that the entire region (as opposed to a fraction of one percent of it) resembles a bomb-blighted wasteland.

Yet in spite of this, tourism in northern Alberta, as well as promotional muscle behind it, remains negligible at best. Apart from simply historical habit (the south has always been far more synonymous with tourism), this may be simply due to the fact that the region, with all its resource wealth, has never felt the need to develop a tourism sector. After all, with Fort McMurray Airport passenger traffic growing at an annual rate of 29 per cent (by far the fastest in the country), it's not as though people aren't coming to the region - they're just not doing it for pleasure. Which is a real shame, because in addition to the region's truly stunning physical landscape and abundance of things to do, northern Alberta would also benefit from a greater focus on attracting tourists for the following reasons:

1) Tourism is a truly recession-proof industry.

Still the only game in town (source: National Post)
Alberta economists talk about "boom and bust" economics with the same fatalistic tone that Japanese architects talk about earthquakes. And while this is unlikely to change anytime soon, a more diverse economy makes for less severe busts. And tourism, perhaps more than any other sector, is a great recession insurance policy. Not only does an abundance of local attractions provide more affordable alternatives to overseas travel in times of greater economic hardship (in turn pouring capital back into local communities), recessions make a country more affordable to overseas visitors. A vibrant tourism sector is therefore a great insurance policy for a region, particularly for one so prone to big economic ups and downs.

2) Tourism keeps people around.

While Fort McMurray continues its steady evolution from seasonal work camp to a real city, it still maintains a disproportionately high "shadow population" of seasonal workers. A more substantial tourism industry would be a further step in the city's evolution. As the Municipal District of Wood Buffalo's only real urban settlement, Fort Mac is the logical hub for a full-fledged Wood Buffalo tourism industry, and it's not hard to imagine the place as a new Jasper or Banff, replete with superb eateries, lodgings, coffee shops, retail outlets, live music venues and art galleries, which would not only create jobs but also curb the outflow of people following their two weeks on the oilpatch.

3) It would be a great boon for the region's Aboriginal people.

Northern Alberta is not only home to tremendous cultural diversity among its First Nation and Métis communities, but it also some of the country's most economically successful Aboriginal groups. While the oil sands continue to cause much consternation and division among the region's First Nations, there's no denying their positive impact on many communities. The Fort McKay and Fort McMurray bands are amongst the wealthiest First Nations in the country, and the Fort Chipewyan region's Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have both built successful groups of companies that encompass everything from trucking to ecotourism. Some of the region's Aboriginal tourism drivers, such as the wonderful Mikisew Sport Fishing and the fantastic Aboriginal hotelier group Sawridge, are very much market-ready, while others need more time and support to reach that point. Considering the widespread interest in Aboriginal culture and traditions among European and Asian tourists, this would seem to be a natural magnet - and a huge potential benefit to the local population.

4) It would help combat the region's enduring PR problem.

If only Fort McMurray looked like this! (source:
When Neil Young compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima, my initial reaction was that this was a rather unflattering thing to say about one of modern Japan's prettiest and most hospitable metropolitan centres. It also reminded me of one of the other great benefits of tourism: combating unfounded negative stereotypes. When it comes to shedding a bad image, nothing beats tourism. The latest issue of National Geographic Traveler lists former hellholes Rwanda and Sarajevo among its top twenty "must-visit" destinations of 2014 (together with the now recovered and rejuvenated New Orleans, ranked at #1), and tourism looks to help lift long-beleaguered Burma as it emerges from fifty years of despotism and destitution. Tourism also stands to help northern Alberta shed its unfounded reputation as an environmental disaster zone akin to western Kazakhstan's nuclear test zones (see Kazakhstan's noble attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist destination), which in turn would do wonders for Alberta and Canada's reputations abroad.

5) Northern Alberta is Canada writ small.

The current state of Northern Alberta's economy is very much reflective of Canada as a whole - thriving but woefully under-diversified. Once a global leader in the tourism industry (ranked second behind Italy as recently as the 1970s), Canada has become a colossal global underachiever, with tourism revenues having dropped 20 per cent since 2000 and the country now ranked 18th in overseas visitors, behind the likes of Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. There are many reasons for that, including the high cost of internal travel, prohibitively high aviation fees and tariffs, protectionist airline policies, unfriendly visa regimes and a plethora of emerging market competitors, but the main reason is simple: it hasn't been prioritized. Many observers have pointed this out, and yet political will to curb Canada's international tourism demise remains in short supply.

Financial basketcase turned tourism darling. Skál!
(source: National Geographic)
Why should any of us care? See Reason #1. Consider the case of Iceland, which in 2012 was ranked 16th overall in spite of having less than one per cent of Canada's population. Prior to Iceland's 2008 banking meltdown the country already enjoyed an international reputation as a "cool" destination thanks to its otherworldly landscape, surprisingly temperate climate, fascinating ancient history and hip modern art, music and design scene. Then when the country's economy collapsed (taking its overvalued currency with it), the country's government and private sector sprung into action , promoting Iceland as a fashionable alternative gateway to Europe, together with its enterprising national air carrier Icelandair, offering transatlantic passengers the option of flying to Europe from smaller hubs (like Halifax and Boston) via Reykjavik and stopping off in the land of Erik the Red and Björk at no extra cost.

Result? When Icelandair launched non-stop flights out of Edmonton International Airport to much local fanfare, the airline quickly found no shortage of demand on the Alberta side for travel to Iceland as well as to continental destinations like Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. Filling the planes on the way back with anything other than Canadians returning to their regular lives, on the other hand, has proven to be more challenging. That could change. Northern Alberta, and indeed western Canada as a whole, has at least as much going for it tourism-wise as pint-sized Iceland. Edmonton, with its multitude of arts festivals, resplendent park network and increasingly ambitious architecture, makes a compelling foil for Reykjavik, and the haunting landscape of boreal Alberta, as well of course as the Rockies, the Badlands and the postcard cowboy landscapes of the prairies, ought to be drawing Europeans by the thousands. They're not. Not even close.

Let's try to do something about this in 2014. Starting with Alberta's neglected north.

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