Short-term ideas and long-term planning to recover Alberta’s tourism sector

Everyone experienced immense changes in 2020, and it encouraged a reconsideration for what is important at (or near) home. Alberta is known for its outdoor recreation and awe-inspiring nature around the world, and it held the attention of locals over the past summer.

Following a flurry of restrictions in the spring of 2020, the Alberta government encouraged outdoor recreation as a safe means of leisure and quality time with others.

And the rise in outdoor recreation was noticeable. Campsite reservations in provincial parks jumped by more than 5,400 per cent compared to the year before. Backcountry and tourist activities all experienced a boom from Albertans looking for opportunities to get outside and spend time with others – at a safe distance.

Here are some ideas to promote safe tourism and what the province has planned to support tourism beyond COVID-19.


Alberta’s Tourism Framework: 2013-2020

So – what has been the strategy until now? In 2013 Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation and Travel Alberta teamed up to deliver a strategy for growth and sustainability within Alberta’s tourism industry called the Alberta Tourism Framework.

The plan focused on authentic tourist experiences and a culture of collaboration, rather than competition, by industry leaders in order to maximize provincial resources and grow the provincial economy.

The framework put forward five key priorities to stimulate growth:

  • Innovation and development: to encourage private investment in both regeneration and new development,
  • Accessibility: to improve access to more regions,
  • Marketing: to focus the tourism brand on “authentic experiences in breathtaking environments,”
  • Alignment: to unify organizations within the industry and promote transparency regarding practices, and
  • Research: to use science-based research when making decisions about the industry

The overall goal was to provide economic benefit to all regions of the province by growing tourism into a $10.3 billion industry by the year 2020.

And it seems as though they were on the right track, pre-COVID-19. The most recent statistics available are from 2017, but by then visitor economy had risen to $8.9 billion.


New opportunities for tourism

Nature-based recreation

During and beyond COVID-19 times, outdoor recreation has been a core part of Alberta’s tourism industry and even foundational to the Albertan identity. It also provides an opportunity to leverage the province’s incredible nature-based assets, from the prairies to the mountains.

Gateway and natural amenity regions (GNAR) are small cities and towns located near natural tourist attractions  and recreation opportunities such as national or provincial parks and ski areas. Recreation infrastructures like hiking trails and access roads can vary widely in terms of function, cost, and environmental impact.

Municipalities that can encourage and support nature-based recreation will be prepared to manage existing demand while promoting tourism and future growth.

Utah State University’s “GNAR Community Online Toolkit” provides extensive resources to help officials prepare for the challenges associated with recreation-based tourism in smaller communities. For example, at key times throughout the year, a community like Banff, Alberta, will grapple with severe congestion, lack of affordable workforce housing, and other “big city issues.”

There are further complications to take into consideration in light of COVID-19. Communities need to understand and follow public health directives in order to establish best practices for  cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, promoting social distancing, and helping to prevent the spread of the virus.

Effective planning is essential, and the toolkit provides suggests a collaborative approach to planning in order to balance a diverse  range of interests while maximizing resources and increasing the interest of investors.


Re(Bound) Strategy

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Travel Alberta developed its “Alberta (re)Bound Strategy” to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on Alberta’s tourism industry. The (re)Bound Strategy is a three-phased actionable approach consisting of Respond, Restart and Rebuild.

The respond phase occurred in the spring of 2020 when the province essentially shut down and tourism came to a halt.

The restart phase began in May 2020 and is expected to carry on into April 2020. This is where the industry and its leaders work together to support the re-opening of the tourism industry, promote responsible economic practices to sustain the reopening, and promote the value of the Alberta’s “10-year Tourism Strategy.”

The final phase, Rebuild, will focus on repairing the damage done to vulnerable communities and businesses in the tourism industry, developing sustainable tourism in Alberta, and preparing the industry for future crises.


10-year tourism strategy

Aiming to grow tourism revenue to $20 billion over the next decade, the Government of Alberta and Tourism Alberta began preparing for the future of the provincial tourism industry through the 10-Year Tourism Strategy in October 2019.

Although a framework for the plan has not yet been developed, leaders in the industry met in January to identify eight themes for long-term growth and sustainability within the industry:

  • Enhanced support for the industry
  • Need for community input
  • Economic sustainability
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Shoulder season growth
  • Continued industry collaboration
  • Highlighting the value of tourism
  • Moving visitors around the province

In light of COVID-19, the 10-year strategy is being amended to account for the subsequent need to rebuild Alberta’s tourism industry while continuing to promote its long-term growth.

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