Canada needs to compete on the world stage when it comes to tourism, says federal tourism minister

Even if Canada is blessed with some of the world’s most incredible scenery, fascinating history and rich culture, Minister of Tourism Randy Boissonnault thinks Canadians have to get serious about competing with other countries when it comes to attracting international visitors.

“For my whole lifetime, tourism just happened. People came to Canada and it was great, but now we’re realizing and waking up to what our competitors around the world are doing, which is seeing tourism as a key economic driver,” said Boissonnault in an interview for Tourism Week 2023, noting that the industry brings in $105 billion in revenue to Canada and over $45 billion dollars to the country’s GDP.

During a speech to kick off the week in Ottawa, he said that other countries are investing hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions, because they see the future of the visitor economy and Canada has to compete with them. He believes that Canada is rounding that corner and will no longer take a passive approach, but be more intentional in attracting high value guests to the country.

One of the ways they will do that is by bringing in more business events and sporting competitions beyond the elite international sporting events and major conferences that the country is already good at attracting.

“We now have a $50-million fund over the next three years that’s going to help Destination Canada to compete on the world level, and bring those kinds of properties to Canada in communities small, medium and large in both urban and rural settings.”

Boissonnault also sees great opportunity with Indigenous tourism which he says is a critical sub-sector to the Canada tourism industry. He also noted that it was the fastest growing sub-sector before the pandemic began, reaching revenues of $1.9 billion.

“To give you a comparator, the same year New Zealand was doing about $8 billion in revenue, so we’ve got a long way to go if we want to lead the world or differentiate ourselves,” he explained, but he added that Canada had an advantage in that many of its Indigenous experiences are Indigenous owned and led, which isn’t always the case in other parts of the world.

“There are a lot of opportunities around this country to do more in this space and part of its coordination, part of it is funding and part of it is continuing to partner with economic development agencies of provinces because they’re starting to realize how big of a draw Indigenous tourism is to their province and territory.”

With every province and territory having its own tourism ministries, there was a time that the jurisdictions competed, but Boissonnault says that there has been a more collaborative approach in recent years, citing Destination Canada’s North Star 22 strategy as an example. Launched just before the pandemic began, it draws together 22 of the largest communities in the country to work together to promote the country internationally.

“Even our counterparts in the U.S. don’t have something like that and North Star 22 has been a fabulous success from a data sharing perspective, from a coordination perspective. And I can tell you that even the provincial marketing organizations realize that without the Canadian brand, most people internationally don’t know how to find them. Even the rebrand here in Alberta is now Canada’s Alberta so when you market Alberta in New York City, you don’t do it without the maple leaf as part of it.”

So what is the next big Canadian tourism destination? Boissonnault couldn’t say, but he thinks it’s the sort of question that needs to be thought through and he believes the federal government can play a coordinating role through Destination Canada.

“When it comes to destination development, that’s the responsibility of the provinces and I would keep a really close eye on what’s happening in Alberta and Quebec, because both of their provincial governments are leaning in really closely with their tourism DMOs and provincial DMOs to do this kind of work and I see the change is happening, and I see it reflected in the numbers, too.”

No matter what steps Canada takes to attract more tourists, the Minister of Tourism said that quality is more important than quantity.

“I don’t think you’re going to see us in a race to get just more numbers here. We also want to attract high value guests who are going to understand stewardship of the land,” he said, adding that the federal government is working with the country’s tourism ecosystem to make it more sustainable, even regenerative.

He applauded the example of New Zealand’s Tiaki pledge which encourages incoming tourists to promise to leave the land as they found it and be mindful in their actions while visiting. While Canada has no such pledge, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) does have its Sustainable Tourism 2030 pledge aimed at businesses within the industry to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“At the same time, we’re going to have to continue to do what we’re doing in the government with our partners to green the economy. I mean, it’s a big country, right? You don’t get from Halifax to Vancouver easily and if you want it to be there in a day or day and a half, it’s going to be on a plane,” he said, adding that biofuels, renewable diesel and other efforts to get to net zero are important to reduce the environmental footprint of the tourism industry.

One of the biggest obstacles tourism faces in Canadas is labour which is why the federal government gave $4 million in funding last year to Tourism HR Canada, a national organization with a mandate aimed at building a world-leading tourism workforce.

“Why did we do that? Because we want to get the message to high school, college and university kids that you can have a long term career in the tourism visitor economy and it can blow your mind. If you take a look at my colleague, Gudie Hutchings, who before politics was an outfitter for 35 years in Newfoundland and Labrador and had a fabulous career doing that.”

The theme of this year’s National Tourism Week is “powered by tourism” and Boissonnault believes that it couldn’t be more perfect.

“Tourism is indeed a powerhouse. This sector runs on the hard work passion and innovation of workers and the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the ecosystem and these are businesses that are owned by women, indigenous people, racialized Canadians members, of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, persons with disabilities and so many others.”

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