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Karen Ung, seen in a park across from her home in Calgary on March 23, 2021, started her blog, Play Outside Guide, in 2013 to showcase outdoor adventure travel in Western Canada and beyond.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

The tourism sector has been trying to make travelling like a local thing for years, but it took a pandemic to get it to stick.

In Canada, though inbound tourism is shut down, local travel is booming. While they’re normally swarming with international tourists, Banff and Jasper national parks, for example, saw just 25 per cent fewer visitors in 2020, meaning an upswing in local travel prevented an even deeper plunge; nearby, Kananaskis Country saw a record-breaking number of visitors – 5,394,168, an increase of more than 1.2 million over 2019. And with slow vaccine rollouts, Canadians will be staying close to home a little longer. According to a recent survey from the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, 80 per cent of Canadians do plan to take a trip this year, but just 29 per cent say they’ll leave the country.

Indeed, for many around the world, getting away from it all has come to mean not going very far at all. And while this local travel boom has been a lifeline for the tourism sector, it’s also driving changes that will have all visitors travelling more like locals once the pandemic is behind us.

“Tourism had one metric for about 100 years, and that was just more. More customers, more visitors,” said Greg Klassen, a tourism industry strategist and principal of Twenty31 Consulting. “It wasn’t a very good metric because it created a lot of challenges. It created overcrowding and that had an impact on the visitor experience. When you’re there to see waterfalls and you’re standing behind somebody, standing behind somebody, standing behind somebody, it’s not a very enjoyable experience.”

For Karen Ung, a Calgary-based outdoor travel blogger, giving attention to Alberta’s lesser-known outdoor attractions has long been part of her mandate as a volunteer Alberta Parks ambassador. But she’s seen increased interest in these off-the-beaten track spots. “Normally you have the weekend warriors and every weekend they head out to the mountains and go to the same place. Now those trails might be quite crowded, so instead of heading west to the mountains, they’re going east. They’re going to Dinosaur Provincial Park or Drumheller or they’re going north. There’s a lot more exploration going on.”

From Aspen Crossing, a tree farm-turned-historic train destination, to ghost towns to new camping attractions, Ung says she too has broadened her local horizons over the last year. “We found out about one campground near us where there was river rafting that was kid-friendly, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is an hour and a half from our house, how did I not know about this?’”

At the most basic level, Klassen says, this increased local exploration creates a positive cycle. “We know that there are these little towns and communities sometimes only half an hour away from us that offer some really interesting things to see. Now that these areas are being discovered, we have an opportunity to develop these areas for tourism, so we don’t overconcentrate our visitors into the same spots.”

When borders reopen, Klassen expects there will be additional trickle-down effects. “Now that local is more cool than it used to be, when we have visitors come and visit us, where we once would get in the car and go somewhere further away, we might rethink that and bring them to some of our local haunts now that we’ve rediscovered them.”

It’s a similar story in other places that have faced hard lockdowns and travel restrictions: Australia, which has effectively closed its borders to international travel and faces fluctuating interstate restrictions, saw an overall decrease in domestic travel but a significantly greater proportion of road trips. Based on metrics such as overnight trips and spend, intrastate travel down under was least affected.

At Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, the vast majority of its 400,000 annual visitors have traditionally come from out of state and abroad. Following a nine-month closure and strategic revamp, the museum been seeing similar numbers of daily visitors as prior to the pandemic – but they’re not travelling nearly as far to get there.

“Our local visitation has gone up about 20 per cent and our wider Tasmanian visitation has gone up considerably to about 90 per cent,” says front of house operations manager Anthony White. “[But locals] aren’t coming to Mona for an hour, they’re coming for an experience, particularly if they’re driving to get here from across the state. So, we’ve looked to give that experience more space and to provide more reasons to stay and explore.”

Among the new things to see and do: the seven-meter-high bronze Girls Rule sculpture by American Tom Otterness, which doubles as a playground; a labyrinthine mirror maze by Australian artists Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney, the largest of its kind in the world; daily live outdoor music and dining “experiments” at Mona’s award-winning restaurant Faro, itself a destination.

The museum also relaunched its mobile app, the O, to anchor the entire experience. “Mona [has always] messed with the curatorial approach of traditional museums, and the O was originally conceived to replace wall labels. It was predominantly an artwork interpretation device,” White says. Now the app has a hidden function: It’s a tool to strategically move traffic through indoor exhibits.

“Something we obviously needed to work hard on was creating flow and not having bottlenecks,” says White. “One of the challenges emerging from the closure period was how to maintain a sense of discovery and exploration. We needed to introduce measures to control flow for obvious reasons, but how do we get that balance right?

“Museums tend to have a focus on how to achieve high visitation and turnover. What we’ve really learned from all this is that finding ways to spread visitation and encourage people to take more time to explore and to break up their day improves the quality of the experience.”

In Sonoma, Calif., Margaret Lindgren, proprietor of Unbeaten Path Tours, underwent a similar exercise in how her company could marry its original purpose – taking guests on treks through Northern California’s wild beauty – with meeting people’s physical and emotional needs in these unique times.

“Within three days [last March], everything I had on my reservation docket for 2020 disappeared,” Lindgren says. After growing her business for nearly a decade, the uncertainty led to a personal crisis of confidence, which she dug herself out of by designing sigils, personal symbols inspired by her surroundings. This, in turn, inspired her newest hiking offering: Healing Walkshops.

“To start, we walk from a woodland environment to the coastal environment. We talk about the interconnections and independence of these two environments, and we look at all sorts of examples of how nature is mutualistic and cooperative and how it adapts,” she says. The 1.5-hour hike is followed by a sigil workshop and crystal bowl sound bathing.

A second round of stay-at-home orders in California in the fall meant growth hasn’t been linear – “It’s been like a stone skipping,” she says – but Lindgren says interest is increasing steadily. Unlike before the pandemic, when guests were largely international, most bookings are from San Francisco-area residents escaping the city. But as broader travel resumes, Lindgren sees Walkshops as an opportunity to aid individual recovery as people come to terms with the traumas of the last year.

“This experience really helps people get inside the beauty of the place. For a traveller, it takes on new meaning,” Lindgren says. “In the past, we bypassed our local connection to place. We’d always travel to get away. What we’re finding is that we’re learning so much more about ourselves in our own backyards – and learning a lot more about our own backyards.”

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