Sixteen million international tourists visited Canada in 2012. They were even more in 2013: 18.2 million, mainly going to the provinces of Ontario (7.7 million), British Columbia (4.3 million) and Quebec (2.9 million). As the Canadian population is 35 million, those are pretty impressive numbers. It means that Canada is welcoming the equivalent of half its own population, of international travellers, per year. As a comparison, the USA welcomed 67 million international tourists in 2012, around 20% of its population (350 million). Moreover, flights to Canada tend to be more expensive, and there are only a handful of cities to visit compared to the USA.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT CANADA’S IMAGE THAT FASCINATES INTERNATIONAL TRAVELLERS SO MUCH?
Well, there is an extensive mythology around Canada that territorial branding helped create and maintain around the world. Canada is “big”, “wild” and “scenic” before anything else in the minds of most tourists. Of course that perception varies according to the traveler’s provenance: the largest tourist contingent comes from the USA (almost 11 million in 2013), followed by the UK (600,000), France (500,000), Germany (300,000) and Australia (220,000), to round out the top five.
It’s safe to assume that American visitors are not here to find an exotic form of remoteness, wilderness or immensity. They have enough of that on their side of the border. This tourism is more easily explained by proximity, good hospitality deals, family visits and business trips. European and Australian visitors, however, have to come a long way. There are also around 6,000 working holiday visas offered every year for young people from a selection of countries to come spend a year working and travelling around Canada. Those visas are usually snapped up in less than a day once they become available.
Beside the current economic situation that drives a big part of the visitor flows from the old continent to Canada, in the hope of finding a job and getting a work visa, there is still a strong attraction that goes beyond the American Dream. It’s more than a quest for social ascension and personal accumulation of wealth. It’s more than the prospect of a good labour market and secure cities to raise a family.
It’s about escaping crowded spaces to experience some of the lowest human densities in the world. It’s about dreaming about insanely vast land ownership. Absolute freedom and wilderness. Wood house and a lake with no neighbour. Infinite rivers, water abundance, magical scenery.
It feels like Canada does not have to work very hard to sell itself to the rest of the world. A couple of pictures featuring fantastic fall colours over the Laurentians, some icy foggy lake in Ontario and majestic giant trees in BC will automatically evoke Canada in the minds of most people, who will immediately sigh for it. It is so obvious that we tend to forget we were not born knowing that Canada is such a beautiful place.
This image is the result of repetitive, massive and constant efforts by the Canadian authorities to sell the country as a welcoming, virgin land, the Eldorado of outdoor adventurers, where being a pioneer is still possible.
As has New Zealand, Canada became very quickly the master of self promotion through nature (See the “Pure New Zealand Campaign to compare). In fact, as a former colonial country far away from the homeland, Canada has been worrying about attracting people for a very long time. If the first immigrants were largely forced to come, or endured such bad living conditions in Europe that they’d rather try something else, it was no longer the case after the country gained independence in 1931. The United Kingdom stopped sending contingents, and even if the economical attraction of Canada was luring some households in, the country lived with a constant demographic threat of decline from that point on, and still does.
The choice of promoting wilderness, large available lands and scenic beauty is directly related to the arguments used to convince pioneers and farmers to come settle in Canada.
Conveniently, when the rural exodus started and cities started to become indisputable centres of the economy, tourism began to emerge as an economic sector. International tourism being made possible by the development of commercial airlines, the potential market for Canada just expanded from a continental one to a global one. The strategy of promoting the wilderness to farmers and pioneers turned out to be also a great one for attracting upper middle class urban people from other countries, nostalgic about open spaces and “true nature” they never had a chance to experience.
The outdoors and the wilderness are still among the arguments on the Canadian Commission of Tourism’s very official Canada’s Tourism Brand page. With the development of recreational sports and nature domestication (new equipment like thermal textiles, new technologies like GPS that allow safe exploration), this strategy turned out to be the best possible to continue attracting visitors dying for a chance to experience the Canadian Dream.
I recommend this great academic paper, “The Use of Territorial Brands To Stand Out As A Tourist Destination“, to learn more about what territorial marketing is about, as well as the 2013 official commercial video of Canada and the 1990′s campaign aimed at attracting American tourists, called “The World Next Door”, just for the fun of comparison:
… and the 1990′s campaign aiming to attract US tourist, called “The World Next Door”, just for fun of comparison:
Pictures on this page are from the National Geographic Campaign called “Places of a lifetime” to promote diversity of scenery and travel in Canada.