The number of tourists coming to Canada from south of the border is finally growing again after more than a decade of decline when tighter border security, a weak U.S. economy and a relatively high loonie kept Americans at home.
In the post-9/11 world, the number of overnight travellers arriving each year from the United States dropped by almost 4.7 million – or close to 30 per cent – between 2002 and 2013. There was some recovery in 2014, then a sharp 10-per-cent jump in 2015. And in the first five months of this year, the numbers bumped up 13 per cent from the year-ago period, according to Statistics Canada.
Tourism to Toronto has been record breaking this year. With a weak Canadian dollar we have seen Americans flocking to our city. This is great for the economy, the more money spent here, the better our city's employment rate will become. I for one am a proponent of a weaker Canadian dollar. It isn't great for us vacationing overseas or in the United States, but it sure does bring money into our local markets. Here's an article from today's Globe and Mail entitled US Tourism to Canada Soars.
Travel Alberta chief executive officer Royce Chwin said several factors are in alignment at the moment. The foreign exchange rate is favourable, far more Americans now have passports and the U.S. economy is showing a steady turnaround. “All of those things point in the right direction to say that there is a travelling public that is interested in visiting Canada.”
At the same time, the tragic violent incidents in France, Belgium and elsewhere in the world are prompting some people to change their plans and stay closer to home, Mr. Chwin said. “Canada has been perceived as being a very safe and clean and welcoming destination. We have a sense that that may be influencing some travelling behaviours.”
Attracting American travellers is vitally important to Alberta and the rest of the country, Mr. Chwin said, because they represent the largest source of potential new revenue, on top of the solid base of domestic travel spending. “The U.S. market for us is huge,” he said.
In Nova Scotia, “we’re really seeing a nice, robust return of U.S. visitors,” said Martha Stevens, Tourism Nova Scotia’s marketing director. In 2015, the number of American tourists coming to the province rose 12 per cent, and numbers so far this year point to a similar increase for 2016, she said.
While U.S. travellers are important to all regions of Canada, in some they are more crucial than in others. In Nova Scotia, about 9 per cent of non-resident overnight visitors to the province come from south of the border. But in Vancouver, Americans accounted for a whopping 26 per cent of overnight visits in the first four months of this year, up from about 24 per cent a year earlier.
One factor that is helping to boost the number of Americans crossing the border is a renewed national marketing effort to get Canada on their radar.
In recent months, Destination Canada, the federal Crown agency responsible for selling Canada as a tourist destination, has returned to the U.S. market after a four-year absence. Destination Canada had done no leisure travel promotion south of the border since 2012, when the Conservative government slashed its budget.
The Tories reversed course in 2015, restoring money for travel marketing in the United States, and the new Liberal government doled out more cash to Destination Canada in its first budget this spring – an additional $50-million over the next two years.
Destination Canada began spending some of the money in the United States this spring, on a digital advertising campaign targeting a young demographic in a dozen metropolitan areas where there is direct air access to Canada and a high interest in travelling here.
The ads, which appear on digital media sites or pop up on relevant Google searches, don’t focus on the traditional “maple leaf and moose and Mounties,” said Destination Canada president David Goldstein. They show adventure experiences and urban food culture, along with the natural wonders of the country. There is also material focused on LGBT travel, aboriginal tourism and a range of music venues and festivals.
At the moment, there is no traditional television or print advertising, which is more expensive and where it is harder to measure the impact, Mr. Goldstein said.
A key feature of the new campaign is a partnership with provinces, cities and individual tourist operators, who pay part of the cost, in return for links in the advertising to their websites. “We grab [the potential traveller] first, then depending on their interest, we pass that baton on … to Hilton Hotels or Air Canada or Tourism New Brunswick,” Mr. Goldstein said.
Travel Alberta is participating in the Destination Canada marketing program, although it also continues to do some of its own advertising in the United States, Mr. Chwin said. It is too early to tell if the federal program is working, he said, “but the timing couldn’t be better” because of the underlying conditions that are prompting Americans to travel more.
Even when their numbers declined in the 2000s, tourists from the United States have always made up by far the largest number of foreign travellers in Canada – more than all other countries combined. Indeed, the U.S. generates almost ten times the combined numbers of tourists from the next two largest sources of travellers to Canada – Britain and China.
At the peak in 2002, more than 16 million Americans came across the border. The trough was in 2013, when about 11.5 million overnight trips were made. The numbers were back to 12.6 million in 2015, and 2016 is likely to be significantly higher.
Mr. Goldstein said he hopes to be back to the levels of the early 2000s within two or three years. “Our goal is to get back to those pre-2002 numbers by 2020, if not before,” he said.
Trumped up tourism
In Nova Scotia, a rise in the number of American tourists can be attributed to a revived ferry service and to Donald Trump.
In 2014, the ferry between Yarmouth, N.S., and Portland, Me., was re-established after an absence of four years, restoring a short-cut route for Americans travelling to Nova Scotia. At the same time, Tourism Nova Scotia cranked up its U.S. marketing efforts that had been reduced when the ferry was gone.
Then there’s Mr. Trump. In February, a Cape Breton disc jockey launched a website suggesting that Americans unhappy with the prospect of a Trump presidency consider moving to the island. The story went viral, and U.S. networks and publications picked it up.
Now, all that publicity is clearly affecting tourism in the province, said Martha Stevens, Tourism Nova Scotia’s marketing director. “We don’t joke about it any more” because it has clearly had an impact, she said.
Room bookings in Cape Breton are up sharply, and “the ‘Trump bump’ is a genuine factor,” she said. “We are now seeing it translate into tangible visitation.”
Nova Scotia’s marketing is focused on New England, and includes digital advertising, ads on elevator video screens and digital billboards, videos on YouTube and Facebook, and some television and print spots, Ms. Stevens said. The province is also a partner in the renewed U.S. digital ad campaign established by Destination Canada, the federal Crown agency responsible for marketing Canadian tourism outside the country.
While millennial travellers are a growing market for Nova Scotia, the main target is still those around 45 years of age, Ms. Stevens said. While some attractions – such as Halifax’s waterfront bars – appeal to millennials, “we need more of those types of experiences” before that market can be aggressively pursued, she said.