2012 tourism season in Prince Rupert is tough to predict

We try to predict how our tourism season will play out, and if necessary shape marketing efforts to fill gaps or play on strengths

My crystal ball is a bit cloudy this spring.

As always, we try to predict how our tourism season will play out, and if necessary shape marketing efforts to either fill gaps or play on seasonal strengths.

Returning as always to our benchmark year of 2007, where the Visitor Study provides a starting point for understanding annual changes, leisure travellers provided 79 per cent of the total visitors and 57 per cent of the total tourism revenue. Business travellers provided 21 per cent of the total visitors and 43 per cent of the total revenue.

These figures must be looked at through the lens of this season’s cruise traffic. The 2007 study was done in a year when there were two weekly ship visits. That provided 46 per cent of total leisure visits, and about 9 per cent of total leisure revenue. On the business travel side, cruise ship crews provided 17 per cent of total visitors and 3 per cent of total revenue. The total visitor count is substantial, but the total in lost revenue, on the surface, seems as if it should be manageable.

The key phrase here is “should be.” The impact of cruise across the tourism sector is disproportionate. Obviously fewer cruise ship visits means fewer tour departures, and the adventure tour operators have been dealt a heavy blow. This has in fact led to reduced capacity, with two companies either not operating this year or operating in extremely limited capacity. Food and beverage will also feel the pinch.

So what of the bulk of our leisure travel, as measured by room nights? We’re hearing optimistic predictions elsewhere in the province – Vancouver looks toward new in-bound flights, increased cruise visits, growing confidence in US travellers and increased buoyancy in international markets. How might that filter down into northern BC?

To begin with international “buoyancy” is relative, with the “euro crisis” impacting Prince Rupert’s key European markets. The German market, for example, shrank by another .2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011. Even though this was less than expected, and analysts are predicting a resumption of growth in the German economy by mid-2012, it’s unlikely there will be enough consumer confidence to drive travel to Canada this year. How much Vancouver’s added flights and growing US confidence will play out in northern highway travel remains to be seen. International and US visitors each represented about 22 per cent of our overnight leisure travel in 2007.

How the halibut allocation issue will play out across the local tourism sector is simply impossible to predict. Efforts are being made to avoid an in-season closure through limit modifications and increased education of anglers. I hope these prove fruitful. The blow to our guides, and our accommodation and hospitality sector, from an in-season closure would be substantial. Sport fishing provides a whopping 31 per cent of our community’s revenue from leisure travellers – and that was measured in a year when guided trips were substantially reduced by a landslide closing Highway 16 early in the season.

The cumulative result of these things suggests that we should be very cautious this year, and that both angling and general overnight leisure travel could be problematic. Yet there is a positive side. Remember that 43 per cent of total tourism revenue in 2007 (minus the 3 per cent accounted for by cruise ship crews) came from business travellers. With increased activity and construction on the industrial side, all anecdotal information I have suggests that we will see a very strong year for business room nights. And make no mistake – these are tourists; valuable, long-term tourists, who spend considerably more than most leisure travellers. The trick for us this year will be to do our best to convert on these visitors, to encourage their increased enjoyment of our restaurants and get them sampling some of our other experiences. Next week I’ll take a look at how we might do that, and what TPR might be able to do to help.