The worst is over in Calgary. That's the good news.
Recovering from one of the most damaging natural disasters in Canadian history also means assessing the toll of the flood. For the tourism industry, the short-term outlook isn't great. Although the Calgary Stampede starts Friday with the promise to be the second-highest-grossing edition in its 101-year history, much of that success is attributable to the Calgarians and Albertans who have rallied to support the event.
Hotel rooms are far from full and occupancy rates are always a testament to the health of a destination's tourism industry. Last year, some hotel rooms topped $700 a night for the Stampede. This year, those same rooms are going for half that price.
Calgary had enjoyed a 2012 that was its best year for tourism since it hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. It welcomed 5.2-million visitors, who spent $1.4 billion. Those figures represented year-over-year percentage increases that were tops among all major Canadian cities. In 2012, a record 13.6-million passengers traversed through the Calgary International Airport, the Stampede set a new attendance mark with 1.5-million patrons arriving for the event's centennial, and the city enjoyed 24 consecutive months of year-over-year growth in its hotel occupancy rates.
That streak will surely end because of the flood. It will also require a revamp of projections that forecasted robust tourism growth for the years ahead. Tourism Calgary earlier this year predicted travel spending would expand to $2.1 billion before the end of the decade and that the city would see 7.1-million annual visits, a number similar to what Montreal currently receives in a year.
The truth is people are extremely fickle with their travel choices. A vacation is one of the riskiest purchases anyone can make. You can't get your money back if you choose poorly, you often make a sight-unseen purchase on your destination and hotel, and you're likely to spend one or two paycheques on the cost of the trip. Throw in the fact that it's a vacation, so the tendency is to go somewhere fun, and destinations that are recovering from rough times often suffer from negative perception for years.
"I know that a lot of people around the country think we're still under water. We're not under water. The water's gone," Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said on Thursday as the city and Tourism Calgary launched a three-week campaign to spur visitation this summer. "We certainly have a lot of rebuilding to do... Really we are back. The restaurants are open. The hotels are open and we're ready to welcome the visitors. I think it's important for people to know that."
The message is correct. Nenshi, though, is going to have to continue to say it, because the onslaught of negative news is hard to combat. For example, New Orleans saw a record 10.1-million visitors in 2004, the year prior to Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, a year after that vicious storm, visits to the Louisiana city plummeted to 3.7-million. Only in 2012, seven years after Katrina, did the Big Easy finally see a return to its pre-disaster levels. The city hosted nine-million visitors last year, its second-highest total ever, and that resulted in a record tourism spend of $6 billion.
How Calgary's Flood Is Like New Orleans' Katrina
Will Calgary have to wait that long to return to its pre-flood visitation levels? Hopefully not and there are some good reasons why New Orleans' situation is vastly different from the challenges Calgary confronts.
1. The government bungling from the White House on down curtailed recovery efforts in New Orleans and kept the bad news coming at the public. That negativity played a major role in keeping people away.
2. Macabre scenes of death, violence and suffering were a constant presence on the news about New Orleans for months, even years, after Katrina. In Calgary, some positive stories have received media attention, including the civic-mindedness of the people and the quality of the mayor.
3. The Great Recession floored tourism everywhere on the planet, slowing any momentum New Orleans was hoping to gain from travel deals and discounted hotel rooms to lure visitors to return. Likewise, the BP oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico was also a setback for tourism.
However, Calgary faces some tests that New Orleans didn't.
1. It's not an established tourism destination. People know about the Stampede and they know that the city is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, but they don't know nearly enough about its many assets. There is no equivalent of the French Quarter or Bourbon Street that is instantly identifiable as a year-round attraction. That lack of knowledge about Calgary makes it a difficult sell on a routine basis. Now, as a city that is recognized by hundreds of millions only for the misfortune of being assaulted by a devastating flood, the sell becomes more difficult to complete. The positive messages of recovery have to be as relentless as the flood waters in order to build the momentum for tourism Nenshi seeks.
2. Calgary is expensive compared to many other places. In 2010, I wrote that New Orleans was the best travel bargain in North America and in many respects that remains true. Still, cheap vacations to a tremendously fun, cool and entertaining city didn't entice visitors to rush back to Bourbon Street. It's been a slow climb after Katrina. Calgary has to rebound without the comparable bargain rates. While the city may be inexpensive to visit in contrast to other places in Canada (thanks in part to Alberta's lack of provincial sales tax), it's still pricey for Americans and international visitors. If a tourist is choosing between Denver and Calgary, the memories of the flood will likely shift them to Colorado, because airfares in Canada are painfully high and that means Calgary can't compete on price with many U.S. destinations.
3. In New Orleans, the historic French Quarter -- the city's primary tourist centre -- was by far the least damaged area of the city. The 1.7-square-kilometre neighbourhood is three feet above sea level and was not irrevocably damaged by the floods. Businesses in the French Quarter were back and operating quickly. In Calgary, the flooding occurred in the downtown area, and premier hotels, restaurants and stores were all affected. Many are up and running, less than two weeks after the flooding began on June 20, and that's a testament to the city's leadership and spirit. Whether there are lingering issues related to the flooding remains to be seen and travellers may wait on the sidelines until there are assurances from people other than government officials and business owners that the city's tourism draws are indeed back.
I'm rooting for Calgary. It's a great city with great people and it hosts one of the world's great events, the Stampede. I recently listed Seven Reasons to Visit Calgary After the Flood. But the reality is tourism is among the most competitive industries any of us know. A disaster can stick in the collective consciousness for a generation or more and it will lessen enthusiasm for visiting. Perhaps Nenshi knows this and that may be why he was encouraging Canadians so strongly to visit on Thursday, the day before the Stampede parade.
"There are some real economic reasons to do it," Nenshi told reporters as he got the message out about travelling to Calgary. "A lot of our neighbours are in a lot of pain. A lot of folks have lost wages over the time we've been closed and many of those folks depend on the tourism industry to do well. And of course they make their bread and butter during Stampede. ... Calgarians have shown remarkable tenacity and spirit in all the work that we've done to date. But now it's a chance for us to really show the world we're back."
None of us should doubt that Calgarians will show their spirit. That's what the city has in surplus. Can its citizens keep up the boosterism for months and months, to drum it into the world that they truly have beat back the damaging effects of the flood? The city will move on, but unfortunately the world will have a snap shot of its streets being beneath water and that is an image that will take plenty of effort to submerge.
[Note: At Vacay.ca we are in the midst of setting up an Indiegogo online crowd-sourcing campaign to aid Alberta flood victims. Our hope is to have it up and running next week. Return to the website for details or email us and we will let you know when the campaign has begun.]