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Canadian tourism industry losing out as millennials travel abroad

People walk on the car-free Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, France, May 8, 2016.

JACKY NAEGELEN/REUTERS

The Canadian tourism industry is grappling with a demographic problem that could threaten its future: Millennials are spending far more of their travel dollars outside the country than at home.

The industry is so worried about this trend that it has created a campaign to try to keep younger Canadians in the country, or at least get them to consider some domestic travel along with their international adventures. But taming the global wanderlust of millennials – a large, adventurous cohort that includes those in their 20s and early 30s – is a tall order. Younger Canadians are currently eight times more likely to take a lengthy vacation outside the country than inside it, said David Goldstein, president of Destination Canada, the Crown agency responsible for marketing Canadian tourism. "This is a problem if it is not addressed," he said, because millennials are a huge source of travel spending and they could pick up the slack as aging baby boomers begin to slow down.

Globe-trotting millennials have exacerbated Canada's "international travel deficit" – the difference between what Canadians of all ages spend travelling outside the country and what we glean from foreign tourists coming here. In 2015, despite the low dollar, that deficit was about $17-billion, as Canadians took 32.3 million overnight trips outside the country and foreign travellers made 17.8 million trips here.

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A study published last year by Destination Canada said the No. 1 issue keeping young Canadians from travelling in Canada is the high cost of domestic transportation. But there is also an image problem. "Canadian millennials perceive foreign countries as more exotic and adventurous than Canada," the report said.

The Globe and Mail interviewed millennial-age travellers across Canada who have spent far more time exploring other countries than their own and most agreed with the Destination Canada assessment.

"It comes down to economics … flights within Canada are so crazy expensive that it's stupid to not travel the world instead," Kaegan Donnelly, a 27-year-old marketing and social media specialist in Vancouver, said. "If you're already spending the time and money to get to another major metropolitan area in Canada, you may as well head to another continent. Folks in my age group are looking to step outside of their comfort zone and experience something new and exciting, and that's not something you'll necessarily get when hopping a flight from Vancouver to Toronto."

Others mentioned the "exotic" nature of other countries and the appeal of something foreign. "I actually enjoy being in a country where I don't speak the language," said Jen Barnsley, a 26-year-old administrative assistant in Edmonton who has travelled extensively in Europe and Asia, but little in Canada. "It introduces new and different ways to have to interact with people."

But there are other, more subtle factors. Connectivity and the Internet have made travelling to places that are culturally different, far more comfortable and easy to arrange than in the past. There's also a bit of a Canadian inferiority complex at work – many young people don't see Canada as a place to experience something different or exciting, compared with other countries.

Still, many millennials said they are interested in seeing Canada, but that it won't take priority over international travel until they are older.

In the meantime, the travel industry is working hard to get them to see the appeal of vacationing in Canada by focusing on the experiences they can have here. Late last year, Destination Canada teamed up with Bell Media's Much brand to develop a year-long marketing campaign aimed at millennials. The "Far & Wide" website started up in April and the campaign will use YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to try to reach young travellers with video vignettes and pitches for activities ranging from surfing in Tofino, B.C., to attending the Osheaga music festival in Montreal. Small and medium-sized tourism businesses have been offered a chance to join the campaign by buying spots on the site.

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The travel industry is also pushing for other changes that might help. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada has been lobbying Ottawa to cut fees and taxes on airfares to lower prices for consumers – and perhaps attract some cut-price airlines into Canada.

As for the millennials themselves, they have a few suggestions.

Cory Loughran, a 25-year-old finance specialist in Halifax, said tourism operators should offer more youth discounts, like the ones available in Europe, and there needs to be more low-cost accommodation such as youth hostels.

Toronto lawyer Sharmin Rahman, 30, summed up the key issue for many: "If the cost of in-Canada flights were more reasonable, or our train routes more efficient, I'd be enticed to see more of the country."

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Why millennials go travel abroad

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"I feel as though there is a richer cultural experience to be had elsewhere, whether it's the food, music, history, etc." – Arjun, 28.

"Sharing photos from Machu Picchu on your Instagram is much more impressive than sharing photos from Saskatchewan. On the other side, there are people looking for relaxation in the sun, all-inclusive packages or a party scene, none of which are really offered in Canada." – Alex, 29

"Having the opportunity to meet people from Sweden and Russia and Israel and Australia – all these other travellers – that was a pretty great experience." – Michael, 35

"If I can get to Europe or anywhere else for a fraction of the price of going to Toronto or Montreal, what's to stop me?" – Sean, 30

"I'd love to go across Canada, but for some reason it's more appealing to get on a plane and touch down somewhere warm and different from what I know of home in Vancouver. I love different cultures and language and foods – and subconsciously, Canada is Canada." – Taylor, 23.

"There's a mystique and aura about foreign countries that cannot be replicated at home. Few things are more exhilarating than landing at a foreign airport or bus terminal where you don't speak a word of the language or the writing isn't even in the standard English alphabet, and you have to figure out how to get around." – Mark, 34

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