Prince Rupert’s shift from transportation to destination

Prince Rupert has always been a major transportation hub.

Prince Rupert has always been a major transportation hub.

It is the terminus of Highway 16 and of VIA Rail’s northern route, of the Inside Passage on BC Ferries, the Haida Gwaii ferry, and the Alaska ferry. It is a natural supply stop for Alaska-bound pleasure craft, and is discussed in the earliest classics of yachting literature. A tourism industry here was inevitable.

Years ago I read that 200,000 vehicles a year passed through Prince Rupert in the early ‘80s. I’ve never gone back to confirm the statistic – I don’t even remember where I read it – but the number wouldn’t surprise me. What we now call the great northern circle route, from Vancouver to Prince George and Prince Rupert and back via the Island, was already popular. Advertising the allure of the British Columbia landscape, via train and steamship, began over a century ago.

Yet that was the problem facing Prince Rupert at the beginning of this century. The early advertising focused on the journey. Advertising by the railways, and the steamships and later ferries, sold a scenic journey. The fact that hotel rooms in Prince Rupert also sold was incidental to this. The earliest provincial advertising sold British Columbia as a whole, which nicely reinforced the existing advertising of touring BC and BC waters. It wasn’t until Beautiful British Columbia magazine that the stories of individual communities and attractions began to be told, and that awareness still had a long ways to go in the 1990s.

It was obvious to everybody, everywhere in the province, that the next step was changing the perception of British Columbia from a scenic tour to a series of unique and fascinating destinations. The same shift was happening everywhere in the world. Changing this took a switch in philosophy within the community.

We used to have Convention and Visitors’ Bureaus whose sole function was greet visitors as they arrived. I’ve written before about how in Prince Rupert an advisory committee was formed in the late ‘90s that transitioned the Prince Rupert Visitors’ Bureau into Tourism Prince Rupert. The role was no longer passively waiting for tourists, but to go out and get them by changing their perceptions of what to expect in Prince Rupert.

It worked, of course. The advertising shifted away from pictures of (yet another) attractive coastal town in BC. Annual magazines were now published to promote the things visitors could do if they stayed for a day or two – our extremely impressive museums, wildlife watching, sport fishing, and so on. This work was well underway by the time I started at TPR in 2003, and shortly after that received a huge boost from the selection of Prince Rupert as a port of call for cruise ships. Cruise ships provided instant credibility.

We weren’t able to fully capitalize on that, of course, despite our message growing even more refined with the creation of the Prince Rupert Visitor Plan in 2008, because the arrival of cruise coincided with a collapse of city budgets. But while we might have been able to do better with more money, it still worked. Prince Rupert is now largely seen as a destination for travelers. Of course many still pass through, disappointed that they haven’t done the research that would have told them that they would have thoroughly enjoyed an extra day here. There is still much work to do, but the purpose of that transitional committee of fifteen years ago has been largely achieved. Each year more and more people see Prince Rupert as a unique destination, and plan their journey to include time to enjoy our experiences and attractions.

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