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Why Is No One Travelling to Canada?

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I set out to write an article saying that all of the money the United States was pouring into marketing itself as a destination was going to have a residual effect for Canada that could be beneficial. Tony Pollard set me straight.

"We are facing a crisis situation," the head of the Hotel Association of Canada told me on Tuesday. "At a time when our federal tourism agency's budget is being cut, the Americans are outgunning us in their spend. They're going after us with very creative marketing, and you can't blame them. It's the smart thing for them to do."

Pollard and other tourism officials I spoke to agreed with a recent report in the Globe and Mail that called the American push a significant threat to a Canadian tourism industry struggling to gain market share despite the nation's sterling reputation abroad.

The World Economic Forum's 2011 Travel & Tourism Report, which rates nations on their attractiveness for tourism, ranked Canada ninth in the world. The nation has been number one for two straight years in the Future Brand Index that measures favourability and trustworthiness by frequent travellers. Earlier this month, the British Council, a charitable research organization, said a survey of young travellers showed that safety was the fifth most important factor when deciding on a destination (in 2007 safety ranked 17) and Canada is viewed as one of the safest, most welcoming nations on the planet.

Yet, this country has fallen behind Mexico, Turkey, Singapore, and even Malaysia in annual global tourism rankings, dropping to 16th in 2011 from a high of seventh overall in 2002.

"You can't say that it's a currency issue," Pollard said, noting that the rise in value of the Canadian dollar is the one factor that's most often cited for the decline. "Currencies of any nation will go up and down."

Putting the blame on the loonie's ascent is especially weak when you consider the success of Tourism Toronto, a privately held organization whose diligent and ambitious marketing efforts have successfully driven the city it represents to record levels in both business and leisure arrivals. It's done so largely through a successful re-focusing of its target demographic, aiming now at high-end travellers rather than weekend shoppers from border cities.

With the advent of Brand USA, an initiative launched by the Barack Obama administration, America began an international promotional push last month to showcase itself as a country eager to welcome the world. It's a contrast to the image the nation has held since 9/11. Increased security measures and border officials who can come across as boorish led to a drastic decline in travel to the US even before the recession dented its tourism industry further.

The New York Times reported in April that Brand USA will have a budget of US$150 million, with funding coming from the US federal government and the private sector. Meanwhile, the federal budget for the Canadian Tourism Commission has been slashed to CDN$72 million this year and will shrink by approximately $14.2 million further next year. Pollard did say that the private sector in Canada does match the public federal funding about dollar for dollar, meaning that the 2012 tourism budget isn't that far off the amount of money Brand USA has to wield. But when one side of the border is dramatically cranking up its investment and the other side is collapsing its spend, the potential consequences are worrisome.

I thought, perhaps foolishly, that Brand USA could allow for some shrewd piggyback promotions on the part of Canadian tourism boards.

Nik Wallenda's phenomenal walk across Niagara Falls demonstrated how Canada and the US can benefit from sharing the immense wealth of natural wonders and cultural attractions they enjoy. A New Orleans-Quebec City tour geared to Europeans who want to see how French colonial cultures diverge? A Big Sky Country visit to both Wyoming's Yellowstone Park and Banff National Park in Alberta? A Chinese heritage itinerary that includes stops in San Francisco, the Oregon coast, and Vancouver? There are possibilities for cooperation, but not enough to sway opinion that the arrival of America as a serious tourism marketer is a terribly bad thing for Canada.

"There are tour operators that will package Canada and the US together, and maybe there will be more of that sort of thing. But while it may appear to be a silver lining, it's a very small silver lining to this," Pollard said.

Canadian tourism brought in $78.8 billion in revenue last year and government officials have set $100 billion in revenue as a target by 2015, despite the dwindling federal budget. The chances of it reaching that mark may not be great should current trends continue, particularly the one that has seen Canadians take five million flights out of neighbouring U.S. airports.

Those who have done so have protested with their pocketbooks. They'll spend gas money and risk a long border wait rather than pay the excessive airfares Air Canada and Westjet charge in part because the cost of airport rents and government fees are so high.

Pollard said HAC is among the many advocates for reform of Canada's airport economics. "We have a very vigorous, concentrated lobbying campaign" aimed at parliamentarians who can push for measures that will lead to lower airfare costs for Canadians and international visitors.

"We want to restore Canada back into top 10 in global tourism, which is where it belongs," he said. "With the pace of government, I'm not going to say that's going to happen any time soon, but we are approaching a crisis situation where things seem to be coming to a head and that might mean we get change, hopefully."