Tourism is seeing substantial growth on a global scale. Growth is being driven by multiple trends: the rise of the middle class in China, millennial leisure spending leaning towards experiences over material goods, and the democratization of travel platforms aligning with value-priced airlines and accommodations to name a few. In 2017, this translated into tourism and travel activity contributing 10.4% of total global GDP as well as having a global impact on labour that sees it support 9.9% of jobs globally. For Canada, this translated into 20.8 million export tourism visits in 2017 worth 2.09% of our GDP.
So, what does this mean for Saskatchewan? It means we’re missing out on a massive and growing economic opportunity.
Provincially we have a strong tourism sector that remains an important economic bedrock, contributing $1.88 billion to the provincial economy in 2017. The important statistic to note, however, is just how much of that spend is generated from within the province and from our nearest neighbour to the west. Overall, in-province domestic tourism spending accounted for 86% of Saskatchewan’s tourism dollars, while an additional 9% came from Alberta. Our international export numbers amount to not much more than 1% – almost a rounding error. There are operators who have built solid businesses through fishing and hunting packages sold to the American marketplace and our City Marketing Organizations (CMO) have done good work bringing international business visitors to Saskatchewan through bidding on and hosting events, but overall there is a massive amount of cash being left on the table.
I think we’re ready to enter the export tourism marketplace, and here’s why:
The playing field is levelling out.
For much of the 20th century and early 21st century, travel was dominated by accommodation and landscape. Bookings were made through travel agencies that promoted established destinations featuring iconic landscapes that acted almost like a checklist: see the mountains – visit Banff (check). This model kept Saskatchewan off the radar and provided little incentive to invest in infrastructure or marketing to support an export tourism economy here. However, in the aughts, the tourism model evolved into the experience model that has now come to dominate travel planning and bookings. The experience model has fundamentally disrupted the static sightseeing model and has also levelled the playing field. Destinations no longer need massive capital investments and proximity to well-known geographic features to be compelling. With a collaborative approach, a smaller destination can develop and promote experiences that appeal to the global market. This is how Saskatchewan can get in the game.
We are rich in Indigenous culture and there are many First Nations investing in tourism.
Demand for Indigenous tourism experiences is growing at a rapid rate both nationally and internationally. Recent research published by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada indicated a rise from $1.4 billion in Indigenous tourism-driven GDP in 2015 to $1.8 billion in 2017. The growth is no surprise, as the predominant activities that typify Indigenous tourism experiences, cultural, arts, educational, and environmental activities align very well with the global travel demand for transformational experiences. Saskatchewan is comprised of territory and treaty lands that have been home to Indigenous people and nations for millennia. There are 70 First Nations located within provincial boundaries and Saskatchewan is also the traditional homeland of the Métis. This is our greatest strength in approaching the global tourism marketplace with a strong message. Saskatchewan can be the destination you visit if you want to experience the culture of the northern plains Indigenous people. The work is already beginning, with the Indigenous Tourism Corridor project coming online in 2020, proudly representing Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous tourism experience packaged for export markets. We are also very strong foundationally when it comes to agricultural-focused tourism, another area that lends itself well to transformational experiences. Those experiences will be of benefit to rural communities and can be developed and packaged together with Indigenous experiences and hospitality infrastructure.
We’ve got nothing to lose and much to gain.
We are fortunate to have a strong domestic tourism industry in Saskatchewan, as demand for outdoor camping and lake product continues to grow and the trend does not appear to be slowing. Our cities have sophisticated MICE strategies (Meeting, Incentive, Conferences and Events) that are paying off year over year. Businesses operating in the tourism sector will not be sacrificing the existing market by committing resources to develop export tourism strategies. However, building experiences to bring in export tourism will result in more heads in beds, tables served, cab rides taken, airline tickets purchased, and an overall enhancement of our provincial brand and the brands of businesses involved. The result? An increased influence that will support many industries.
How do we do it?
As an industry, we must connect, collaborate, engage, and advocate. Most of all we must make the effort…and we need to move fast.
We have a window of opportunity, right in front of us. Many traditional tourism focused economies are struggling to pivot to the new transformational experience model and they are suffering from compression and inflated prices after decades of dominance. Booking agencies and the big guns in travel are also hungry to add experiences to their offerings and new destinations have an edge in value offered. However, this window will close. Competition is fierce in North America and if we fail to innovate rapidly, we will be left behind…again.
We need to foster cross-collaboration between the accommodations sector, event and meeting sector, food and beverage sector, the arts and cultural sector, traditional attractions, outfitters and parks, rural communities and Indigenous communities. Representatives will need to come together and prototype experiences that involve collaboration from start to finish, resulting in packages that can be booked beforehand or in-trip (another big trend emerging).
We also need to up our quality game. Yes, we are friendly but with some exceptions, our service standards are not good enough to meet export tourism standards. Luckily, we have a secret weapon – the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council is very good at what they do and can offer businesses and communities a range of customer service and hospitality focused training, and we need to leverage that.
Finally, this will require effort. We must, as participants in this industry, work to engage and collaborate. Critical mass must be achieved to affect meaningful change. If we get the ball rolling and prove a case, governments will assist us. I know this because I have secured government funds doing this kind of work.
If you are interested in working together to make export tourism happen in SK, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.