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Why the Pan-Am Games Won't Fix Canada's Tourism Woes

06/16/2015 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/16/2016 05:59 EDT
OMAR TORRES via Getty Images
The commercial counselor of the Ontario government at the Canadian embassy in Mexico, Chantal Ramsay (C), XVII Pan-American games board member Victor Garcia (R), and press attache Fulvio Martinez, attend a press conference in Mexico City on May 25, 2015, to explain details about the next Toronto 2015 XVII Pan-American Games. AFP PHOTO/OMAR TORRES (Photo credit should read OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans are some of Toronto and Ontario's favourite tourism clients. As individuals, they are quick to share stories and are exceptional at being relatable. As a group, they're often generous and caring. The U.S. has become increasingly interested in travel and Canada offers a foreign destination with a (mostly) similar language and cultural experience but there are still enough differences here to create a memorable and unique experience. Canada's allure is the vast diversity in geography and people yet the ease of comparability to American regional cultures. Americans and Canadians are not so different from one another but far enough apart that going either way curiosity is piqued.

Ontario is the most common destination for Americans for numerous reasons but there is always more to be done in bringing new and repeat visitors across the border. The Canadian government's Connecting America program was proposed in 2013 by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and the Canadian Tourism Commission as a way to form a federal-level initiative to connect all regions of Canada and strengthen the Canadian brand to the south. The specific goal is a four per cent increase in American traffic (about 650,000 visitors) to Canada over a three-year period.

After years years of neglect in the tourism industry by the Feds, this program is designed to match 1:1 up to $105 million in funding from provincial and local governments plus private investment, equalling a potential total of $210 million over a three-year period -- sorely-needed funding in a high-performing sector.

Canada's international branding is top-notch, the maple leaf has made us one of the most easily identifiable countries on Earth but the federal government has put more focus on overseas markets like China and England than the much closer America in recent years. This has left many in the American middle class finding other markets to visit thanks to better marketing from European and South American countries. Geography speaks, though, and if Canada can utilize our cheaper dollar and diverse beauty this program will certainly generate new business.

The hope for Toronto and other municipalities in 2015 to bring in mass amounts of visitors from America and beyond during the Pan-Am games may be falling short already with only a third of tickets sold and less than a month to go before opening. Undoubtedly, people will pick up more tickets closer to the date but aside from legacy infrastructure projects, the Pan-Am games are unlikely to perform as the beacon all three levels of government hoped to see and the scandals that have accompanied more than one top Pan-Am exec have already left a sour note in Canadians mouths. More realistically the games may set up Toronto for an Olympic bid and hopefully this is the case so the hard work put in by city employees and the Pan-Am volunteers isn't for naught.

There certainly is a positive aspect to the games -- it does help infrastructure and the less tangible spirit of the country. But Canada doesn't need spectacles like the Pan-Am games to sell itself, the goods are already here -- all we need to do is sell them properly. The Connecting America could offer tourist attractions across Canada access to traditionally high spending American tourists looking for unique experiences. But small businesses can only market so loudly without a multi-million dollar budget. Humans have quick attention spans and the required amount of ad impressions to get a single traveller to say "Hey, that Toronto seems neat" come at a weighty and often unapproachable expense for small businesses.

The good news is that Americans hold more passports than ever before, 38 per cent of the total population in 2014 compared to about 9 per cent in 1994 according to the U.S. government based on valid passports. This indicates a higher level of security commitment from their government but also a desire and the money to travel from the population.

Human travelogue Jim Byers had this to say about the current situation in a recent article: "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. 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." It's a lot to take in but stats like this are dismaying while in parallel the Harper government increases its own "pat on the back" advertising budget.

Canada leads the world from a branding perspective but we have backed it up poorly much like an eager kid in the classroom placing their hand in the air without having an answer. The CTC has put a lot of focus on emerging markets in the last number of years and with budget cuts staff are stretched thin. Connecting America must be utilized to bring numbers from the south back up and the program must be industry-led and government-supported so the maximum number of businesses can benefit.

While different levels of government and organizations go about raising the capital for Connecting America, it is important to remember that small businesses and the over 300,000 people working in Ontario's tourism industry all have hands raised and answers that will drive the economy. It's time to put away the gimmicks and focus on hard work to bring Canada back to the forefront of international tourism.

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