Tourism can help Alberta crawl from the wreckage

As our dollar recedes and terrorism fears rise abroad, Alberta looks like a good bet for visitors

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BANFF, Alta. Dec. 16, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Banff is dressed in its best festive finery, the majestic peaks are snow covered (if lightly) – and money still flows freely in the mountain resort.

Alberta is known primarily for two things: our energy resources and the astonishing natural beauty of our landscape.

As the energy industry swoons, the economic potential of our other natural resources – mountains, lakes, rivers, hoodoos, you name it – becomes that much more important. Throw in Edmonton’s music and Fringe festivals, the Calgary Stampede, dinosaurs and a host of special events and destinations around the province, and you have a recipe for helping to withstand an economic crisis.

After a winter weekend in Banff, I can testify that the mountain resort has lost none of its ability to pull cash from visitors, and to pay it all back with nature at its best.

Given the crippling circumstances Alberta now faces, the timing couldn’t be better for a jolt of tourism dollars from both close to home and further afield.

Alberta’s unemployment has risen 2.2 per cent in a year – and that means more than 63,000 people have lost their jobs in that period.

The provincial government expects a deficit of $6.2 billion – in part because of the dramatic drop in energy-related royalty income and in part because of the need to replace lost jobs and play catch-up through infrastructure projects, from roads to schools to hospitals.

Between January and June, suicides in Alberta were up 30 per cent from the previous year.

Christmas charities and food banks face increased demand. And organizations like Calgary’s Salvation Army report that donations are diminishing.

However, a seriously undervalued dollar and rising fears of terrorist attacks in Europe can provide some relief.

Two years ago, the province projected tourism industry growth of more than 30 per cent in Alberta through 2020. The projection was part of a master plan to expand Alberta’s tourism.

How that plan unfolds depends on so many factors that are outside our control.

One of them is security. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, hotel revenues there are down as much as 40 per cent (year over year) and flight bookings to that city declined by 27 per cent. That tourism spending could easily be redirected to other locations, like Alberta.

Industry analysts also believe that long-term investments will start to trend away from places like Paris and toward destinations that present safety, value and quality experiences. The recently announced a US$3-billion deal for a cluster of historic Canadian hotels – including Fairmont’s Banff Springs, Chateau Lake Louise, Jasper Park Lodge and Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald – by a French-based chain may reflect this.

Certainly the depressed Canadian dollar would have made this deal more attractive, just as it makes visiting Canada, and Alberta, a greater bargain.

According to the provincial government, in 2012 (the most recent statistics), 33.1 million visits were made to various sites in Alberta. The visits were made by Albertans (28.3 million), other Canadians (3.3 million) and those from other countries (1.5 million).

In the same period, visitors spent 13.78 million nights in Alberta motels, hotels and other lodgings. Another 5.25 million nights were spent in campgrounds.

Those visits generated more than $7.41 billion in direct visitor spending in 2012, created 114,000 jobs and had a net economic impact of $8.31 billion across the province. In total, tourism generated $3.41 billion in tax revenue that year.

It’s important to note that the Canadian dollar started 2012 at 1.02 and finished the year at .09933 in comparison to the American dollar.

Today, the loonie represents 0.73 of an American greenback.

The bottom line from a seriously devalued currency? Significantly more purchasing power for U.S. visitors.

The province’s ongoing tourism tracking shows a slight uptick in air traffic to Calgary this fall, while Edmonton’s numbers are flat. Given the decline in work-related activity of all kinds, including flights, this would suggest pure tourism remains healthy. The September resort numbers showed an increase of 1.9 per cent, year over year, and an increase in the average daily room rate (up 12.8 per cent from September 2014).

“This may be a sign that leisure travel remains strong on the back of a weaker Canadian dollar, which keeps Canadians travelling in Canada and attracts tourists from abroad, especially the United States,” says an Alberta Tourism snapshot report.

It helps to have a backup plan that includes natural gifts at their most profound, like those on full display in Banff.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a journalist based in Red Deer. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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