Is Ontario Ready for Green Travel?
by Dan Boileau
Green travel? Ecotourism?
Ask five people the meaning of these terms and youll
likely get five different answers. Ask the Ontario Ministry
of Tourism and youll either get silence or a statement
like, How can you call someone whos flown here
on a jumbo jet an ecotourist? Thats what I got
from Steve Bruno, a consultant who is the driving force
behind the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership (OTMP).
While the Ministry of Tourism knows of the green
travel phenomenon, which many regions have embraced, it has
yet to fully capitalise on the growing market. This may explain
why the term ecotourism is basically absent from all travel-related
literature made public by the Ministry. You wont find
it in any travel guides, advertisements, business plans or
web sites. The OTMP is the closest that the Ministry comes
to promoting green travel in the province, hidden under the
banner of adventure travel.
Up until 1999, the Ontario government never
really took tourism that seriously at least not seriously
enough to create a ministry with the sole responsibility for
this unique portfolio. Up until 1999, tourism was lumped together
with Economic Development and Trade. When Ontario Premier
Mike Harris gave this portfolio to Minister of Tourism Cam
Jackson, he told him to focus on job creation and economic
growth. What this means is that the government will focus
on the tried and true money-makers. Snowmobiling, hunting
and fishing provide a nice cash cow for governments, so why
explore new tourism products such as ecotourism? This would
cost money and in a province that prides itself on tax cuts,
there is little money for research - unless it comes from
the private sector.
The recently formed Ontario Tourism Marketing
Partnership is an alliance between government, outfitters
and corporate sponsors. The group promotes various aspects
of travel throughout the province and one of its mandates
is outdoor adventure. It is the closest the Ontario government
has come to promoting green travel in Ontario.
The group is host to two major initiatives,
which have been well promoted at trade shows, tourism publications
and on the internet. Paddling Ontario and Arts in the Wild
are two of the outdoor adventure products driven mostly by
30 outfitters spanning an area from James Bay to Algonquin
Provincial Park. These outfitters have pooled their talents
and dollars in an effort to attract a larger share of the
soft adventure market.
While relatively new, OTMP appears to be having
a positive impact on travel, according to Todd Lucier, general
manager of Northern Edge Algonquin. While there is still
not a lot of marketing, there is now more co-operation among
tourism suppliers, says Lucier.
Tourism operators, some of whom have been around
for several generations, are likely the best people to drive
the green travel agenda in this province. With their experience,
contact with tourists and a new partnership with government,
they are our best chance of protecting existing sites, which
may support ecotourism.
Lucier admits that while he is supportive of
the initiative, there is still a gap on ecotourism principles.
Because ecotravel is still in its infancy in many ways, we
have yet to find a definition that works for everyone. Perhaps
this is why the term ecotourism is largely avoided. The OTMP
has come a long way in a short time towards developing a new
travel product that appeals to a growing market segment. So
why stop short of using the term ecotourism? Others have used
it and turned it into profits. In Ontario, two colleges now
offer post-diploma degrees in ecotourism management.
Humber College in Toronto and Sir Sanford Fleming
College in Haliburton have clearly defined the ecotourism
market and launched ecotourism management studies to meet
the future needs of this fledgling industry. However, once
students graduate from these studies, where will they work?
Some may head to British Columbia, where the
ecotourism sector is really taking off. In that province,
the Ministry of Tourism has embarked on several initiatives,
including Greening Government, the Green Economy Development
Fund, and Greening Communities, among others. Check out the
web site at www.gov.bc.ca and youll see the term ecotourism
splattered everywhere. Is it just a coincidence that the Green
Party is at its strongest in the west?
As far back as 1994, the government of B.C.
and Alberta sponsored a joint study devoted entirely to ecotourism.
They saw the growth potential of this new industry and acted
on it. British Columbia is now highly regarded by ecotourists
from all over the world, despite issues with clear-cutting
and resulting environmental damages. There is a clear example
of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Guy Lamarche, brand manager for Outdoor Adventure with the
Northern Tourism Marketing Corporation, has 25 years of experience
promoting tourism. He admits that for too long ecotourism
has been shoved under the general theme of outdoor adventure
and he would like to see this change. I see major growth
opportunities ahead as more and more people are looking for
winter travel opportunities other than snow-mobiling,
he says. He adds that Ontario has one of the highest concentrations
of polar bears in the north and that this product
has been overlooked for a long time. Lamarche hopes to right
some of the past wrongs by setting an ecotourism agenda, which
is separate from outdoor adventure. We have the inventory
on the shelf, he adds, and its just a matter
of getting the tourism operators to seize these opportunities.
If these institutions, along with many others,
have found a way to define the ecotourism market and capitalise
on its potential, why has Ontario not moved in the same direction?
We have no shortage of geography, suppliers of tours and accompanying
infrastructure. Ontario already has a good reputation among
nature travellers as one of the finest destinations in North
America for relatively undisturbed wilderness.
Undisturbed natural environments are the primary
ecotourism attractions in this province. Ontario Parks received
8.4 million visitors in 1993, which is a 62 percent increase
from 1981. In Algonquin Provincial Park, quotas are needed
to avoid overcrowding by more than 800,000 visits a year.
More than a thousand people have showed up on a single evening
for a wolf howl at Algonquin.
To compete in the international market and benefit
from the world-wide boom in ecotourism, the province needs
to develop a profile and a competitive product to market.
However, the current government is strictly business
first, so it needs to see the profits to be gained by
promoting ecotourism. Yet, we continue to rely on old habits
when it comes to marketing tourism.
Ontario continues to promote travel that is
in many ways unsustainable to wilderness. Golf courses are
a high priority, as seen with the recent scandals involving
Ontarios premier, Mike Harris. The Toronto Star exposed
how friends of Harris managed to bypass shoreline protection
regulations in order to build luxury homes and a golf course
near sensitive walleye habitat. Golf may be enjoying a growing
boom, but to exploit this activity at the expense of natural
environments and wildlife is downright greedy and short-sighted.
Harris is also personally advocating improved
hunting opportunities, including opening up provincial parks
to annual wildlife slaughters. This is happening while park
visitation is growing at an incredible rate.
Another consumptive use of wildlife is fishing.
Fishing in many lakes across the province these days in now
sustained by the fact that these lakes hold only farm-raised,
stocked species, as natural stocks are unable to keep up to
the angling pressure.
Promoting hunting and fishing without any promotion
of sustainable green tourism opportunities jeopardises our
wilderness resources by relying on activities that are harmful
to potential future markets. It is also widely known that
active participation in hunting is declining and that promoting
this activity is like beating a dead horse. Government may
be eager to form partnerships with the private sector, yet
it seems that cabinet ministers are miles apart when it comes
to synchronising their agendas and ultimate vision.
The Ministry of Tourism has ignored the fact
that the number of hunters declined by 14 percent over the
1981-91 period, while the number of non-consumptive wildlife
tourists increased by 8 percent. The number of American hunters
coming to shoot Ontario wildlife is likely to dwindle even
further, now that new Canadian firearms legislation requires
Customs Canada to interview all persons toting guns across
the border. Shouldnt there be some concern among policy
planners at the Ministries of Natural Resources, Tourism and
Parks Ontario on these trends?
If trends dictate markets of the future, Ontario
is on its way to missing the boat on the growing ecotourism
market. For every Ontarian who goes hunting, three times as
many people take wildlife viewing trips, generating twice
the revenues of hunting.
Another trend which is being overlooked is the
fact that world-wide ecotourism is expected to double in the
next 10 to 15 years. Will we be ready for this new breed of
tourists? What of our remaining natural environments? Will
we have preserved enough green space to actually attract the
According to the Wildlands League, many Ontario
sites with high ecotourism potential are open for logging
and mining. These practices can cause irreparable damage to
forest ecosystems on which ecotourism is largely based. Once
a forest is cut and wildlife habitats are destroyed, a region
has lost its option to join the ecotourism boom. Central Ontarios
red wolf the species whose howls thrill tourists at
Algonquin Park every summer will soon be added to the
Canadian endangered species list. Years of bounties, hunting
and habitat destruction have taken their toll on these wolves.
Unless we change our age-old attitudes towards wolves, millions
of dollars will be lost from this growing ecotourism gold
mine. This is but one example of endangering our ecotourism
Countless regions of the world are losing their
natural resources at an unprecedented rate. Fortunately, Ontario
still has a large share of the planets undisturbed wilderness
spaces. We need to find the right balance, which includes
ecotourism, in order to sustain our future economies. There
will come a time when harvesting trees no longer keeps up
with the demand of an ever-increasing global population. Using
up all of our resources in the immediate future will create
a huge deficit on both the tourism and resources-based sectors
of the market.
The answer to whether or not the provincial
government is doing enough to promote ecotourism in Ontario
might be found in its theme More to Discover.
We can only hope that government and joint partnerships will
lead the way to discover new travel market trends that promote
healthy communities and sustainable lands programmes. The
research and the foundations have been laid all around us.
There are many voices crying for attention in Ontarios
wilderness. Hunters, anglers, wildlife, cottagers, tourists,
miners, loggers and developers all want a share of a diminishing
resource. Lets hope that Ontario Tourism finally hears
the voices coming from around the world, eager to see a moose,
a hawk, an old white pine and some trilliums. These are worth
their weight in gold to a growing number of travellers.