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Shifting the focus of tourism - Bob Michels (5/01)

"Tourists seek ecological attractions." That was the headline of a recent Associated Press story that described an emerging trend in Florida tourism that should deliver an important message to Northern Ontario. Apparently, 18.

"Tourists seek ecological attractions."

That was the headline of a recent Associated Press story that described an emerging trend in Florida tourism that should deliver an important message to Northern Ontario.

Apparently, 18.2 million people visited Florida in July, August and September - an increase of 11 per cent above the 1999 level. More importantly, nearly 38 per cent, or almost seven million people, took part in some sort of environmental, cultural or historical activity during their stay within that three-month period. That's higher than the number of people who visited the theme parks for which Florida is so renowned. As one person was quoted, "I don't mind staying at the beach, but not every day."

What? Theatres, parks, nature reserves, museums and heritage festivals are a bigger draw than Disney World or Sea

World? Does the future of tourism lie in these niche markets? Apparently so.

So what does this mean for Northern Ontario?

First, we traditionally have focused our tourism marketing efforts on the fishermen and hunters of the upper

Midwest United States. Visitors will jump in their cars or trucks in Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis and drive to Northern Ontario. Frequently, they bring their own boats, motors, groceries and the other gear necessary to enjoy the fruits of our Crown Land. But, is this where the owners of our resorts, outfitting establishments and campgrounds should be trying to build and grow their businesses? Is this where the Northern Ontario tourism marketing board should direct their efforts?

I think not. While efforts should be made to maintain this market base, it is not the future - not where we should look for growth and development of our tourism sector.

While hunting is acknowledged as a "heritage" activity, the truth is that the issuance of hunting licences has been on a steep decline for years. Sport fishing continues to grow in popularity, but our sport fishery in Ontario does have finite limits.

Do we respect the feelings of the wife and kids who ask Dad, "Why can't we go too?" Do we listen to the person who says, "I don't mind fishing, but not all day, every day".

Snowmobiling may be peaking in popularity, but cross-country skiing has lots of room to grow. How many people might be thrilled to have an opportunity to drive a dogsled, if only for a half-hour? Can an afternoon at the local museum, a visit to a community heritage festival or just a walk through the golf course inject the kind of variety necessary to convert a fishing trip for the guys into an interesting and exciting vacation experience for the whole family?

Will observing a bear or a caribou in the natural wild draw as many tourists from Germany as the opportunity to shoot bears draws hunters? Can the polar bears of James Bay draw as many visitors as the goose hunt? Will our seascapes and landscapes draw the interest of serious photographers? How much of an attraction are our clear skies and clean air? Will "soft" wilderness sell as well?

For years, the trends in world tourism have moved in favour of family events - shorter rather than longer time frames - "packaged" and "all-inclusive" experiences, direct and quick access by air rather than automobile, and now towards eco- and culture tourism.

Have Northern Ontario and the Government of Ontario kept up? Hardly. We still tend to focus on one- or two-week "hook and bullet" offerings. We still concentrate the bulk of our efforts on the United States Midwest.

Same old, same old - as the expression goes.

Can we prosper by developing and enhancing our niche market opportunities? Of course we can.

Should we encourage and help fund the local museum, culture or heritage attraction, the community festivals or the ecological interpretive centre? Yes.

The population of the United States is in the order of 350 million. The world population is now over six billion.

While we are talking about niche markets, what percentage of the market do we need to capture before we are overloaded? One per cent? Two?

Ask yourself what kind of experience you prefer when you and your family take your vacation? No muss, no fuss.

Get there quick. Sell me a package that has what I want, or sell me some interesting 'add-on' experiences or tours as icing on my vacation cake. Florida, Mexico, Cuba, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc. all know what Canadians want and they deliver. As a result, Canadians spend hundreds of millions of dollars and travel by the hundreds of thousands to destinations outside Canada.

Can we learn something from this? I hope so.

Bob Michels is an author and consultant from Atikokan.