The best laid action plans…

Three years ago the government of The Best Place on Earth introduced a Tourism Action Plan. The plan was developed to help meet the challenge of doubling B.C.'s tourism business from $9 billion to $18 billion by 2015.

Stan Hagen, then the Minister of Tourism, Sport and the Arts, noted in the plan's introduction that "global tourism rates are up, and forecasters expect it to continue to grow at about four per cent for the next 15 years." But that was before the global recession took things like vacations and discretionary spending off the table for a lot of people.

According to GO2, the industry training and recruitment office, tourism revenues in B.C. totaled $13.8 billion in 2008, up about four per cent over 2007. Figures for last year are still coming in but 2009 was not good for tourism generally. Some experts predict a return to four per cent growth globally this year.

Whether that pace can be maintained over the next five years will largely be determined by the economy. But the three-year-old Tourism Action Plan provides a few predictions about what else will have happened by 2015 when the industry has doubled in size. Among them:

• There is more access to key overseas markets as a result of expanded Open Skies policies and more direct flights into Canada's Pacific Gateway.

• Aboriginal tourism flourishes across B.C., attracting domestic and international visitors.

• More international calibre winter sport events take place in the legacy infrastructure built for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

• British Columbia increases the annual revenues from Chinese visitors to $158 million by 2009 from $91 million in 2005.

At first glance these appear to be reasonable targets, but three years after the Tourism Action Plan was released most don't seem to be much closer to being realized. Take Open Skies, for instance.

Last fall the province hosted a weekend conference on Open Skies, inviting representatives of Asia-Pacific countries and airlines to take part and express their interest in flying to Vancouver. It may have been a good effort but there's nothing to show for it.

Air travel is a federal responsibility and to date the Harper government has shown little interest in allowing more air access through Vancouver. True, many airlines have been hit hard by the recession and are not in a position to expand their service. But not all would have to expand; some would redeploy flights to Vancouver if the option was available.

And then there is the case of Air Emirates, which has been lobbying for years to be allowed more flights to Canada, in particular to Vancouver and Calgary. Air Emirates, which shares six flights a week from Toronto to the United Arab Emirates with Etihad Airways, said in February it would bring $480 million of economic benefits and more than 2,800 jobs to Canada if it was given permission for more flights.

Air Canada, which says it can handle all the traffic between Canada and the UAE, called the numbers "a fairy tale."

Aboriginal tourism certainly received a boost from the 2010 Olympics. First Nations' art and culture were woven into nearly every aspect of the Games. But whether that exposure attracts more visitors, to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre for instance, remains to be seen.

Similarly, the legacy societies in Whistler and Richmond have hardly had a chance to show what they can do. Whistler has announced World Cup bobsled and skeleton races will be coming here in November but we'll have to see what other international calibre winter sports events come this way.

Chinese tourism is another area where the federal government plays the lead role. After ignoring China for several years Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally paid the country a visit last year - and suddenly Canada had the long-desired Approved Destination Status. ADS means Chinese tour operators are now able to book tours to Canada.

As a tourism market for British Columbia, China will take time to develop. However, there may still be some political impediments.

Gabriel Yiu, a former provincial NDP candidate in Vancouver Fraserview, attended a B.C.-China tourism conference last month. Yiu reported on his blog that one panel discussion was on Chinese tourists obtaining Canadian visas. While 78 per cent of visa applicants are approved at the Beijing office, and 87 per cent approved at the Shanghai office, that doesn't tell the whole story.

Two Beijing travel operators told the conference that Chinese travel agents advise their customers that if they haven't visited Europe or the United States then they should not apply for a Canadian visa, because the refusal rate is very high. "Once an application is declined, a mark will be stamped on the passport and it will then be difficult to obtain a European or US visa," Yiu wrote. "Based on such advice, travelers who apply to travel to Canada are often those who have already obtained a European or US visa."

We are still five years from the vision the Tourism Action Plan laid out in 2007. But the examples above suggest big changes in politics and the economy have to occur before the vision will be realized.



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