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Canada’s cultural tourism industry: The numbers shouldn’t surprise us

/ November 9, 2012

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Canada’s cultural tourism industry: The numbers shouldn’t surprise us

In my last post, I talked about place-based cultural tourism – an approach to destination planning I’ve developed to maximize a community’s ability to attract cultural tourists.  How?  By capitalizing on any community’s most strategic asset: its sense of place.

I’ve been banging this drum for a number of years.  In response, I often hear the view that in Canada – primarily, an outdoor scenery and nature-based destination – cultural tourism seldom warrants investment in destination planning initiatives or segmented marketing campaigns. There’s a subtext in many of my conversations with industry leaders that cultural tourists are a small band of enthusiasts – “niche travelers” who, for most communities, do not generate sufficient travel volume or spending to justify more than the obligatory listing of arts, culture, and heritage attractions found in a destination’s visitor guide, a few dedicated pages on a destination’s website, or perhaps, help in marketing a heritage trail or an artists’ studio tour.

This view – the view that, as the manager of one destination marketing organization put it to me: “Canada isn’t a cultural destination; we’re not Europe” – makes me keenly aware of the disconnect between what many DMOs think the size and value of Canada’s cultural tourism economy is, and what research tells us the actual size and value is.

Every year, Statistics Canada’s Travel Survey of Residents of Canada reveals that more domestic trips by Canadians include historic sites, or museums and galleries, or plays and concerts, than include spectator sports, or golfing, or canoeing and kayaking, or cycling, or casino gambling, or theme parks, or downhill skiing.

Yes, remarkable – and worth reading twice.  And a closer look at the data uncovers plenty of surprises.  For example, the number of domestic trips that includes historic sites typically dwarfs the number of trips that includes downhill skiing.  In fact, in 2007, the number of trips that included historic sites (8.1 million) was four and one-half times the number of trips that included downhill skiing (1.8 million).

Unfortunately, cultural tourism is defined narrowly by Stats Canada.  For example, it doesn’t include winery tourism. It doesn’t include farmers’ markets.  It doesn’t include destination dining by the growing legion of foodies.  It doesn’t include tourism that is motivated by an interest in architecture, by public art, by the charm and character of many of Canada’s small towns, by the distinctive culture of Quebec, or by the legendary warmth and hospitality of Atlantic Canadians.  As a result, there’s little doubt that the real size of Canada’s cultural tourism market is bigger than Stats Canada’s numbers suggest.

The numbers shouldn’t surprise us.  Within the leisure market segment of the global travel industry, culture is arguably the single largest motivator of international travel.  The evidence?  Europe, whose tourism offering is built primarily on culture, is the most visited continent.  France – a nation that epitomizes culture – is the most visited country.  With the exception of the United States and Mexico, every other country on the top-ten list of most-visited destinations has culture as its primary product offering.

And Canada?  In 2002, we ranked number seven on the top-ten list. Today, our ranking has tumbled to number 18.  Granted, this steep decline is due mostly to our American neighbours choosing to remain at home.  The high value of Canada’s dollar, high gas prices, new passport protocols, and a lack of discretionary spending in the wake of the 2008 recession are significant factors curtailing travel for more than 80 percent of our international visitors who originate in the U.S.  That said, Canada’s weakness in targeting cultural tourists is clearly a factor as well.

In 1999, in a report entitled, Packaging the Potential: A Five-Year Business Strategy for Cultural and Heritage Tourism in Canada, the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) stated, “Cultural heritage tourism presents an enormous opportunity for the tourism industry, for cultural and heritage organizations, and for Canada as a whole.”  The report noted that, “little has been done”, to develop our cultural tourism potential.  The CTC then called on tourism and culture to, “move from talking about this potential, to acting upon it.”

What happened after the CTC issued its report?

I served on the CTC’s sub-committee that created the report.  When the co-chair of the sub-committee, Greg Belland, met with the executive of the CTC’s Industry and Product Development Committee with a costing to implement the report’s recommendations – developing an education and communications strategy; building alliances with provincial, territorial, and civic DMOs; liaising with Canada’s cultural sector; organizing regional seminars and workshops; essentially, taking the report on the road to build industry buy-in – the executive of the Industry and Product Development Committee, to quote Greg Belland, “Wouldn’t put up a dime, not a single dime”.  And so, Packaging the Potential was effectively shelved and is now largely forgotten.

While our American cousins have aggressively pursued cultural tourism since the mid-1990s, one Canadian province – our smallest province, PEI – has begun to implement a province-wide cultural tourism strategy.  In English-speaking Canada, one city – Stratford, Ontario – takes a destination planning approach to cultural tourism.

Stats Canada’s numbers for cultural tourism speak volumes. A clarion call for action was sounded more than a decade ago.  Isn’t it time that Canada answered the call?

8 responses to “Canada’s cultural tourism industry: The numbers shouldn’t surprise us”

  1. Barbara says:

    Keep banging that drum! 
    If culture is not the primary tourism draw for the USA, what is? 

    • Steven Thorne says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for your question.

      Data from the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (see: Top 10 International Markets: 2011 Visitation and Spending), states that Canada is the largest inbound market for the United States, with 21.3 million arrivals in 2011 worth $24 billion in spending. Mexico is the second largest inbound market, with 13.5 million arrivals in the same year worth $14.8 billion in spending. In total, in 2011, almost 35 million Canadians and Mexicans accounted for almost $39 billion in spending. In percentage terms, on the 2011 U.S. top-ten arrivals list, Canadians and Mexicans accounted for about 70 percent of arrivals and 40 percent of spending. The remaining 8 countries on the U.S. top-ten arrivals list accounted for 15.2 million visits and $58.1 billion in spending.

      Canadians travel to the U.S. for many reasons – including culture – but the majority of leisure travelers are either cross-border shoppers on day trips, or seasonal “snowbirds” and get-a-away travelers escaping the Canadian winter. I can’t speak with authority concerning Mexican travelers, but, based on my reading, the majority of leisure travelers to the U.S. visit friends and relatives, or take vacations with varying components (some of which, of course, would include culture).

      Although the U.S. offers a cornucopia of cultural tourism experiences, I believe we’d be hard pressed to argue that culture is the primary tourism draw for the United States. Beyond the 35 million Canadian and Mexican arrivals, it seems unlikely that the activities of the remaining 15 million on the U.S. top-ten arrivals list would be sufficiently weighted toward culture to offset the “Can-Mex” effect.

      At the end of the day, I suspect that leisure travelers visit the U.S. for myriad reasons, with culture being one of many. If you find any data indicating that any one product cluster is the primary draw for international visitors to the U.S., please let me know.

      – Steven Thorne

    • Steven_Thorne says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for your question.

      Data from the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (see: Top 10 International Markets: 2011 Visitation and Spending), states that Canada is the largest inbound market for the United States, with 21.3 million arrivals in 2011 worth $24 billion in spending. Mexico is the second largest inbound market, with 13.5 million arrivals in the same year worth $14.8 billion in spending.

      In total, in 2011, almost 35 million Canadians and Mexicans accounted for almost $39 billion in spending. In percentage terms, on the 2011 U.S. top-ten arrivals list, Canadians and Mexicans accounted for about 70 percent of arrivals and 40 percent of spending. The remaining 8 countries on the U.S. top-ten arrivals list accounted for 15.2 million visits and $58.1 billion in spending.

      Canadians travel to the U.S. for many reasons – including culture – but the majority of leisure travelers are either cross-border shoppers on day trips, or seasonal “snowbirds” and get-a-away travelers escaping the Canadian winter. I can’t speak with authority concerning Mexican travelers, but, based on my reading, the majority of leisure travelers to the U.S. visit friends and relatives, or take vacations with varying components (some of which, of course, would include culture).

      Although the U.S. offers a cornucopia of cultural tourism experiences, I believe we’d be hard pressed to argue that culture is the primary tourism draw for the United States. Beyond the 35 million Canadian and Mexican arrivals, it seems unlikely that the activities of the remaining 15 million on the U.S. top-ten arrivals list would be sufficiently weighted toward culture to offset the “Can-Mex” effect.

      At the end of the day, I suspect that leisure travelers visit the U.S. for myriad reasons, with culture being one of many. If you find any data indicating that any one product cluster is the primary draw for international visitors to the U.S., please let me know.

      – Steven Thorne

  2. Great take on cultural tourism.  How do we kick start this thing?!

  3. Judyclaws says:

    What’s the problem with provincial and federal govt’s that they don’t seem to catch on to this?  How much longer do we have to wait?

  4. […] Canada’s cultural tourism economy: $8 billion and counting by Steven Thorne […]

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  6. I just read about this article, while researching for my PhD on creative tourism. I am dumbfounded that there is not one mention of what the Quebec province and its Ministry of tourism do in promoting culture and festivals! Of course, our natural market is French speaking but DMOs’ in Quebec City and Montreal have plenty of examples in English for specific markets on cultural tourism. If Canada is ranked 22nd in cultural aspects of the country, Quebec would rank second! I will be pleased to discuss this subject !