This is a twice-weekly online column highlighting the latest travel news and trends, plus notable destinations.
Oil prices are way down. The Canadian dollar is in a slump worthy of the Maple Leafs. This is a historic opportunity for Ottawa to finally address one of this country's biggest industries: tourism.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on the stump a few weeks back, talking about how oil is not our only economic tool. He talked about the nation's manufacturing base, but almost nothing about tourism and travel.
I've long lamented how tragic our tourism industry is at promoting itself and decried the lack of federal support. In 2002, Canada was seventh in the world for international tourist arrivals. At last count, we were way down at 17th. The Canadian Tourism Commission has had its budget weed-whacked down to a stub, from $105.9-million in 2009 to $58-million in 2014.
Nobody in Ottawa has been talking about this – at least not publicly. But recently, Elizabeth May posted a critique of the Harper government, talking about how they spend like maniacs to promote the oil sands but give next to nothing to this critical industry.
Tourism employs roughly 600,000 Canadians and, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, generated $84.3-billion in economic activity in 2013. Still, it's routinely treated as an afterthought, with a series of bumbling, stumbling junior ministers put in charge of a portfolio that cries out for proven ability.
It's great to see May talk about this. I am more encouraged to see someone with an even higher profile weigh in on the issue. That would be comedian Rick Mercer, who recently devoted one of his rants to Harper's "defeatist" (his word) decision to stop promoting tourism in the U.S., our biggest market.
I've often wondered why the Tories have failed to capitalize on tourism the way officials have done in New Zealand (they ran with Tolkien mania) and the United States, where the Brand USA campaign has sparked a huge boost. (Not to mention the great job Newfoundland has done, as Mercer points out.) The best theory I can come up with is that Harper feels tourism mostly helps waiters and housekeepers living in cities that tend to vote Liberal or NDP – although one could argue that hotels and airlines are the type of big businesses he would want to protect.
I'm not just bashing the Tories here. Tourism Toronto seems to get it, but Ontario's Liberal government has not done nearly enough the past few years.
Perhaps there is reason to hope. With the dollar down and the Pan Am Games on the way to Toronto, maybe the federal government will see tourism as something to help replace the loss of oil income. Tourism is a vital industry in southern Ontario, the No. 1 destination for travellers to our country.
The time is right. The need is great. What do you say, Mr. Harper?
DESTINATION OF THE DAY: PHOENIX
I just returned from a few surprising days in the Phoenix area. I had been before, but this was my first time exploring the city's bustling downtown. You'll find tremendous cafés and funky bookstores in and around Roosevelt Row (Ro Ro), just north of the central business district. My favourite watering hole was Bitter and Twisted, a fantastic bar inside a gloriously restored building kitty corner from the sleek Kimpton Palomar Hotel. For dinner, I'd recommend Southern Rail, a lovely restaurant serving everything from fried green tomatoes to duck confit with a Cajun-style risotto, and Sumo Maya for Japanese-Mexican fusion cuisine (somehow it works). On top of that the city was celebrating both Cocktail Week and the Phoenix Gay Rodeo while I was there. See what I mean about surprising?
Jim Byers is a travel journalist who knows the industry inside and out.
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