On the cusp of a potentially record-breaking year, the team at Destination Canada (NA200) is bullish about the country’s tourism prospects. “We really have the wind in our sails,” says Emmanuelle Legault, the body’s vice-president, international, reflecting on the momentum Canada has gathered over the course of the past 12 months. “It’s looking like  could definitely become record-breaking.”
Before 2017 had even begun, the odds were stacked in the country’s favour, with Lonely Planet and The New York Times naming Canada the number one travel destination in 2017. And a series of significant, one-off events has helped to drive traffic, create a further sense of urgency among travellers and put the country “on the map”, says Legault – from Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations to a full calendar of festivities toasting Montreal’s 375th birthday, both of which are taking place in 2017. This is on the back of what was already a bumper 2016, when Canada almost reached its 2005 record of 20.06 million visitors, with 19.97 million international arrivals last year. At 11% up on 2015, the North American destination’s upsurge in 2016 was at its strongest in 30 years.
Figures for the first half of 2017 already look promising: all of Destination Canada’s 11 core source markets (the US, France, Germany, the UK, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Mexico) are up this year, together bringing a total of almost 7.5 million visitors to the country. This represents a cumulative year-on-year growth of 5.8%. The remaining source markets, meanwhile, have contributed almost a million visitors in total – a year-on-year leap of 9.5%.
In January alone, Canada welcomed 875,576 international arrivals – the highest number for the month in Canadian history – up 9.9% year-on-year, and 4.7% above the previous high, established in 2003. And in May, local think tank Conference Board of Canada released a report asserting that US visits will rise 5.3% over the course of 2017, while outside the United States overseas visits to Canada are expected to soar by 8.4% this year.
While the US, China and the UK remain the country’s top three source markets thus far in 2017 (and among those offering the biggest yield), the fastest-growing sources are other, emerging market economies. The most overwhelmingly positive numbers have come from North American neighbour Mexico – a market that has grown by more than 60% in the first six months of 2017 to 169,769 arrivals. Legault explains the sudden and drastic rise: “The boom you’re seeing from Mexico is down to the visa removal in December, which has really simplified the process [for Mexican visitors]. It’s a very good market for us.”
Fellow Latin American nation Brazil has also experienced a growth spurt, with a 17% year-on-year increase between January and June, despite an 11% fall in airlift – the only one of Canada’s core source markets to witness a drop in air capacity, owing to the suspension of Air Canada’s Rio de Janeiro to Toronto service. Both markets reached new record arrivals for the first six months of the year. Falling just behind Mexico is India, up by 25.4% to 128,097 in the first six months of 2017, thanks in part to airlift: Air Canada launched a new non-stop service between Delhi and Vancouver in October 2016, while an increase of 19,493 seats on the Canadian carrier’s Delhi to Toronto service has led to a combined boost of 104% in airlift. The numbers look set to increase further, thanks to the June launch of Air Canada’s four times weekly Toronto-Mumbai service. Australia has also seen healthy growth, with a 21.8% rise in visitors and an accompanying boost of 81.4% in airlift, representing an additional 48,692 seats in the first half of 2017.
Though other markets such as Hong Kong and the Netherlands “definitely have potential”, Legault explains that the focus will remain on the country’s main 11 markets until the statistics support a budget shift – something the tourism board assesses at the end of each year.
Aside from the full calendar of events in 2017, Legault also points to improved accessibility, a renewed focus on the shoulder seasons and challenging misconceptions through marketing – and by working with the trade – as underpinnings of the country’s recent tourism successes.
A key area of development has been in the city breaks sector. “We’re very well known for the great outdoors [but] the shift in our marketing approach has allowed us to see a huge increase in city breaks,” explains Legault.
“Even tour operators that have been extremely resistant are getting on the bandwagon.” Augmented air capacity from Europe has helped the destination in this respect “tremendously”, she adds. “Accessibility from all over Europe to our cities has definitely helped us be more competitive, to position ourselves better against [cities like] New York and Boston.” Getting visitors to spend more time in Canada’s metropolises was once a challenge for the tourism body, Legault notes, stating that they were not previously perceived as standalone destinations, but rather gateways on a traditional fly-drive holiday.
Conveniently, the niches that Destination Canada is now increasingly trying to promote (such as culinary tourism and the entertainment and music scene) tie in nicely with the push for more city breaks, and have helped to drive interest in cities such as Vancouver (NA200), Montreal, Toronto (NA200) and Ottawa.
While city breaks are a growing market that the tourism board hopes to tap further into, regional tourism is flourishing in certain, previously off-the-radar destinations. “We’re seeing a big increase in Nova Scotia and Manitoba,” Legault notes, adding that neither destination has been widely known outside of North America.
For Manitoba wildlife tourism has steadily become big business, with the small northerly town of Churchill known as both the polar bear and beluga whale capital of the world. But regional capital Winnipeg also boasts some draw cards, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014, and direct flights from London with airline WestJet (NA200), which launched in May last year.
Following on from a successful 2016, when arrivals swelled by 5%, the Conference Board of Canada has said that tourism to Halifax, Nova Scotia should continue to grow in 2017, thanks to the double threat of improved domestic air capacity and cruise ship activity.
Cruise in general has proven a healthy sector for Canada: a study released by Clia-NWC (Cruise Lines International Association – North West & Canada) in April showed that passenger visits between 2012 and 2016 grew by 9% to 2.23 million passengers. Moreover, the report indicated that the upswing achieved over this four-year period is about to be eclipsed. A single-year rise of 14% is forecast for 2017, ensuring further gains in cruise industry spending in the coming year. British Columbia (NA200) has been the main recipient of this growth, followed by Quebec (NA200) and Atlantic Canada (NA200).
Encouraging figures aside, the renewed governmental interest in, and commitment to, the tourism sector promises sustained growth. From initiatives such as Canada’s New Tourism Vision, a government-backed tourism campaign that launched in mid-May, which aims to raise the number of international visitors by 30% come 2021; to the Canadian federal government’s $50 million boost to tourism, announced in March last year, which is to be spread across two years, starting from 2016.
Add to the mix Canada’s long-held reputation as a safe and stable destination, the so-called “Trump slump” of neighbour and tourism competitor the US and the liberal stance of Trudeau’s government (in May CA$100,000 of government funding was announced for Travel Gay Canada, to be spread over two years, and in August Destination Canada and Travel Gay Canada announced a Memorandum of Understanding), and there is every indication that the country’s tourism will continue to flourish. Legault concludes: “We’ve got all the winning conditions right now to see the positive numbers increasing.”