In the Okanagan, almost from the
beginning of non-aboriginal settlement, there has existed, within both governments and business, a strong strain of parochial myopia as to the external factors shaping our destiny.
Wineries traditionally considered their competition to be the one down the road, just as hotels and motels felt they competed with other hospitality providers in the neighbourhood, and every town and hamlet believed they needed their own economic development office and a tourism promotion office. To what end?
Such fragmented voices are about as effective as trying to make your voice stand out in B.C. Place during a football game.
Across the province, the number of tourist centre visitors has been declining. One of the causes is the work of the late Steve Jobs and other tech visionaries who developed smartphones and computer tablets. These devices, along with search engines like Google and the abundance of relevant apps, has put into the hands of any user a simple way to access information on accommodations, restaurants, entertainment, shopping and recreation in any area.
Is it any wonder the need to go to a visitor centre has declined?
Note also that the capacity to find out just about everything you would want to know about any community means you can do it for virtually every community. In short, the competition for tourist dollars is global, not just within the region. That said, making potential visitors aware of our existence and, more importantly, getting them to want to visit and spend time and dollars here is not easy. In fact, it is a daunting challenge.
We should be concerned and interested about this for three reasons:
Tourism is an important factor in the regional economy. In 2010, it generated $1.7 billion within the regional economy and provided 15,000 jobs. Only the public sector (all levels of government) employs more people.
It is a sector in which we have significant advantages - a great climate, magnificent scenery, extensive recreational facilities, good connections by land and air.
The development of a range of tourist-oriented products aimed at the baby boomer market requires only modest investment for significant payoffs. Such development can also lengthen the peak season to make the region more of a year-round destination.
For those who believe tourism is not as good a regional development strategy as turning the Okanagan into Silicon Valley North or into a major manufacturing centre, a reality check is needed. These strategies require major investment in post-secondary educational programs and, ideally, a means of moving the entire region 300 kilometres closer to Vancouver.
Fortunately, there now exists a strategic tourism plan for the entire region that has been endorsed by national, provincial and local tourist organizations, all 90 communities and First Nations within the Thompson-Okanagan. This plan is the result of tireless work of TOTA's CEO Glenn Mandziuk, his staff and many volunteers/stakeholders who worked for over a year to bring it into being.
They built a database that can tell us who comes to the region, when, from where and where to, what they do once here, how much they spend and, most importantly, what motivates them to come. That database will grow in depth and sophistication over time and, in turn, help focus marketing efforts and guide stakeholders as to opportunities they might exploit.
Next week: putting the plan into action.
David Bond is an author and retired bank economist.