09/16/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 11/13/2012 05:12 EST

Why You Should Visit Saskatoon -- Like, Now

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN -- Are you sick of hearing about the financial woes in your country or city? Think there's nowhere in North America, Europe or maybe the entire world where you can duck from the doom and gloom of an economic downturn that seems like it will never abate?

Then you need to go to Saskatoon. Not only to realize that there may indeed be a tomorrow where prosperity is possible but to enjoy the sense of vitality that seems to arise when people, businesses and municipalities have a little extra in their pockets. The positive feelings that good times engender is palpable here in an outpost that many Canadians scoff at without ever paying it a visit.

Jamie Grist has benefitted from the booming economy in the province's largest city. After moving around the country, she left the east coast to return to her hometown. Real estate prices were going up, even in neighbourhoods notorious for their drug culture, and Grist didn't want to miss an opportunity.

"It's good times, for sure. You have to try really hard not to have a job in this province," says Grist, who manages El Mercado Palapas, a year-old Mexican grocery store on Broadway Avenue. The neighbourhood surrounding the store is considered to be among the most affluent districts of a city that will surprise visitors with its natural and architectural beauty. Broadway isn't glitzy but it does feature boutique stores, vintage shops, music venues and restaurants.

The Mexican market isn't the only ethnic spot that's popped up. Halal eateries have recently joined Indian restaurants as the city's tastes diversify with its population. In the downtown that's a short drive from Broadway, you'll also find well-known designer franchises like American Apparel and LuluLemon, along with a major public green space, Meewasin Park. It's home to one of Canada's most highly regarded outdoor skating rinks as well as a promenade that runs above the South Saskatchewan River, a waterway that cuts through the city, offering a unique canoe or kayak experience. And in the streets there are big houses and luxury automobiles causing heads to turn.

"You look around and you see all of these big trucks driving around and you know there's a lot of money here. You do realize it and you do think that it's different than what's happening across the border to the south and how people are losing their homes there. It's something awful in lots of other places too, not just in the States, but we've been insulated from it here," resident Cliff Speer says of the economic hard times elsewhere in the world. Speer runs CanoeSki Discovery Company, a leading provider of eco-tourism and adventure experiences in the province. An expert outdoorsman, Speer takes groups up and down the Saskatchewan rivers. Originally from Manitoba, he has lived in Saskatchewan for decades and like many residents finds the change in fortunes remarkable. "It wasn't that long ago that Saskatchewan was a have-not province," he says, noting that the federal government would send equalization payments to the province when it couldn't cover the costs for social programs such as healthcare and welfare.

In 2009, Saskatchewan didn't need Ottawa's help for the first time in years and it won't receive any payments in 2012-13 either.

Unlike Alberta, whose booming economy is focused almost entirely on the oil and gas industries, Saskatchewan is diversified. The province's strengths include fossil fuels, clean energy and agriculture. What it doesn't have much of is tourism and even that may change, too, as the province and Saskatoon continue to market themselves to the world. In 2010, the most recent year statistics were available from Saskatchewan's tourism boards, the province had roughly 9.5 million visitors, a meagre number compared to the nearly 23 million who visited neighbouring Alberta.

The hope is the strong economy will lead to investment that will grow the tourism industry in Saskatoon. In recent years, direct flights from American cities such as Denver and Chicago have been added, and tourists from Asia have come because of the educational offerings at the University of Saskatchewan, noted for its medical programs.

In all, tourism accounted for $364.9 million in consumer spending in the city two years ago. Saskatoon is Canada's fastest-growing metropolis, Statistics Canada says, and its municipal government predicts its economy will expand by a stunning 4.1 per cent in 2012. Not long ago, people were fleeing the province and now that exodus has reversed, as citizens like Grist return home.

"This really is a wonderful place to live. It's a strong community and people are a lot more tolerant than they were years ago," she says. "All of a sudden we're cool now."

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