Sunset Country to stick around after all

Duane Hicks

A recent announcement by the province to split Ontario into 13 new tourism regions under the purview of regional tourism organizations in early 2010 will not jeopardize the existence of the Ontario Sunset Country Travel Association.
OSCTA executive director Gerry Cariou said yesterday that the non-profit organization, which is roughly 75 percent funded through its membership, will keep promoting the Kenora and Rainy River Districts just as it has for the past 35 years.
“The only impact it could have potentially, and I am not saying it’s going to have this, but there’s potential impact in terms of any kind of funding for us,” Cariou noted.
“Right now, we have a business agreement,” he explained. “We provide services to an arm of the Ministry of Tourism called the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership.
“I am not sure whether this affects that or doesn’t affect that—there’s no information on that.
“But really, Sunset Country is an independent, not-for-profit organization, meaning we’re funded almost 75 percent by our membership. So whatever the government does . . . is irrelevant to us in the sense that we’re still going to market and promote an area within our existing boundaries,” Cariou remarked.
“Their boundaries have no impact on the area called Sunset Country. That doesn’t go away. We’ll still function,” he stressed.
“Again, I am not saying this affects any business arrangement with have with OTMP or Ministry of Tourism and Recreation,” he reiterated. “This is really their set-up so they can do their thing for their purposes.
“Are we are stakeholder? They identify us as one, so we’ll have to wait and see how we fit into their plans.
“But our marketing efforts, our organization, our existence is not affected in any way by this announcement,” Cariou said. “The government can’t create its regions and then we don’t exist anymore.
“We don’t have any relationship with the government other than we sign each year a business agreement that works for us and it works for them.
“Most of our money doesn’t come from the government anyway, so we’re on a solid financial footing.”
Cariou said that, at this point, there are many questions unanswered—and it’s tough to say what the new initiative will mean for Sunset Country.
“It could be good, it could be bad. In general, we are not driven by government programs or announcements—we are driven by what’s best for our membership base and we’ll continue to be,” he remarked, adding Sunset Country will look for partnerships with any new government-driven programs that may come forth if it benefits the tourist industry in Northwestern Ontario.
“We’ll be around next year and the year after and the year after, possibly in a different relationship with [the ministry],” he noted. “But needless to say, we’ll still have our own programs which generate all the results for out here.
“It takes Ontario five years to generate what we generate in one for tourism inquires about this area,” he charged.
“How do you change that by making some announcement?”
Sunset Country is the largest travel association in Ontario with 450 member businesses. It runs a suite of 26 websites which sees five million unique visitors annually.
The travel region for Northern Ontario, known as “Region 13,” extends from the Manitoba border to Sudbury, and actually is comprised of three subregions—13a, 13b, and 13c.
13a includes the Districts of Kenora, Rainy River, and Thunder Bay; 13b includes Algoma District and part of Cochrane District; and 13c includes part of Cochrane District, as well as Manitoulin, Nipissing, Parry Sound, Sudbury, and Temiskaming Districts.
Region 13 actually is larger than the same region first proposed in “Discovering Ontario,” a provincial report on the competitiveness of Ontario’s tourism industry, released in late March.
At that time, the region (called Region 11) only was supposed to reach from the Manitoba border to Sault Ste. Marie.
According to the province, regional tourism organizations “will be responsible for working with tourism partners to enhance and grow that region’s tourism products and marketing activities,” using provincial dollars as well as monies collected from destination marketing fees.
“This regional approach, developed in consultation with the tourism industry, will help better co-ordinate tourism marketing and management, attract increased visitation, generate more economic activity, and create jobs across the province,” it continued.
According to the Ministry of Tourism’s website, the ministry will issue a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) “to help identify one regional tourism organization in each region to lead and grow the industry, and ensure it remains strong and competitive well into the future.”
The RFEI and guidelines will be posted on the ministry’s website in next month.
Cariou expects to be part of a committee regarding this, but even at this point he doubted whether efforts wouldn’t be better spent doing what really needs to be done: finding ways to boost tourism.
“We really all should be concentrating on getting tourists here and doing marketing initiatives, but instead, we’ll be sitting on conference calls and being driven by government and bureaucratic process,” he argued.
“I guess that’s more important to Ontario than getting tourists here.”
Cariou speculated the regional tourism organization for Region 13 will include representation from Northwestern Ontario, as well as the two Northeastern Ontario zones, but is doubtful as to how much voice the northwest will really have.
“There’s two regions from the northeast, so unless we get an equal amount [of representation], we’ll probably constantly get out-voted on everything because it will be two-thirds from the northeast and north central parts of Ontario, which have completely different tourist markets and products than we do,” Cariou warned.
The province said it will help the industry transition to the new tourism regions by providing $25 million in each of the next two years.
This is in addition to the $40 million in ongoing annual funding announced in the 2009 Ontario budget.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, tourism spending in Ontario in 2008 was $23 billion, and more than 300,000 people were directly and indirectly employed by the industry.