Knowledge is power.
Napoleon knew it. Genghis Kahn knew it. Alexander the Great knew it. And so do members of the local North Western Ontario Tourism Association.
NWOTA held its annual fall meeting at the Fort Frances Curling Club on Friday. Its focus was to educate local tourist outfitters by having various ministries answer any questions they may have, as well as update them on issues that are on the horizon—or sitting on their front porch.
Eleven speakers were on the agenda, which ran from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., including Ontario NDP and local MPP Howard Hampton, Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Ken Boshcoff, and Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk.
All spoke about issues facing one of the biggest industries in Northwestern Ontario—issues like higher gas prices, the soaring Canadian dollar versus the U.S. greenback, and implementation of a passport requirement by the United States.
“I find it’s a terrific opportunity because I get to find a lot about the issues,” said Sheila Larmer of the Ministry of Recreation and Tourism, who came from Toronto for Friday’s meeting.
“The things I heard this morning, I didn’t know they were issues,” she noted. “It puts you in a better perspective to understand what’s going on.”
Larmer gave a brief policy and research update on the MTR, as well as brought up an interesting scenario facing tourism in Ontario.
“Our surveying indicates that there really isn’t a strong image of Ontario,” said Larmer, who used data found in a recent survey done by Ontario Tourism to back her claim.
For instance, there was 983,000 fewer U.S. border crossings into Ontario between January and July, 2005 compared to the same period the previous year.
“And there is a real disconnect because the outdoor image is the highest image, but the vast numbers are going to Toronto and Niagara and we don’t entirely understand why that is,” Larmer added.
According to a survey released by the MTR back in June, it is apparent that border crossings are down because American travellers are now more cautious.
The survey found that 31 percent of Americans are taking fewer overnight trips than they used to, 37 percent take shorter overnight trips, while 44 percent of them take overnight trips closer to home than they used to.
And things look like they’re going to get worse before they get better.
“We’re anticipating a drop of 16 percent by 2008 from the 2004 numbers,” warned Larmer.
“I don’t think people have seen it yet in terms of how dramatic it could be, but another five or 10 percent drop . . . reflects hugely on Northwestern Ontario’s economy,” noted Boshcoff.
And though their voices only can reach so far, area tourism outfitters are doing their best to relay ideas to people—like Boshcoff and Hampton—who are in a position to speak for them.
One idea being floated around is co-ordinating events around Northwestern Ontario so that tourists could come and do a “tour” of the area.
“I think the possibilities of joint marketing can really produce something for our targeted market and that targeted market is the Midwest [U.S.], plain and simple,” said Boshcoff, who believes the First Nations tourism aspect should be involved more than it is in the promotion of the area.
“That is something that we really haven’t marshalled to work in partnership,” he remarked.
Another item brought up Friday was something the big-wigs in Michigan are trying to do. They are hoping to make driver’s licences a secure document, which pretty much would keep most people from having to acquire passports—something that most definitely will affect border crossings.
“I think it’s a positive step and Ontario has actually had some influence there in trying to [show] there are alternative identification to just having passports,” said Boshcoff.
“But you can’t really tell someone how to do their own security,” he admitted.
As mentioned earlier, the amount of people travelling to Ontario is down. Boshcoff believes that will change soon, though other things will have to happen first.
“I think Americans will travel less overseas and soon will maximize their Mexican exposure, and that leaves us as being the rebound, so we’ve got to be able to let them know that they’re welcome and create the infrastructure,” he said.
According to the most recent survey done by Ontario Tourism, the total number of Americans travelling overseas between May-July of this year, as compared to the same period last year, is up by 12 percent.
Bill Darby, district manager for the Ministry of Natural Resources, also gave a brief update on some issues that will affect outfitters.
While there’s nothing big on the horizon, Darby said it is beneficial to have these kinds of meetings because it gives agencies like the MNR a forum to let people know what’s going on.
“There’s no specific big issue or storm looming on the horizon in terms of MNR business,” he noted. “It’s more smaller incremental changes over time that they need to be aware of.”
The MNR will be having an open house in January in various locations around district (exact dates and locations have not been finalized). Having these kinds of information-relaying meetings are essential to all parties involved.
“The tourism operators are very busy business people, and there are only certain windows where they have time freed up and can go to these kinds of informational meetings,” said Darby.
These NWOTA meetings have become necessary, said Doug Reynolds, executive director of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters (NOTO), because tourist outfitters may have many in numbers, but they are small in size.
They also don’t have the money that, say, forestry companies have to hire consultants, lawyers, and specialists.
“I often like to compare the problems of the tourism industry with the problems of the forest industry, and there’s no doubt we’ve all got our problems these days,” Reynolds said.
“But if you’re a forestry company, your business can afford to hire accountants and lawyers, and wildlife management specialists, and have all the knowledge close at hand.
“But if you’re a tourism business, you don’t all have those kinds of specialists on staff,” he argued.
“So the next best thing is to get together with your colleagues and compare notes, and bring in some folks who can answer questions and exchange information,” Reynolds reasoned.
Knowledge is power.