Tourism in Prince Rupert prevails in a century of growth

Tourism is a cornerstone of Prince Rupert. The Museum and Archives both have ample collections of Grand Trunk Pacific promotional material

Tourism is a cornerstone of Prince Rupert. The Museum and Archives both have ample collections of Grand Trunk Pacific Railway promotional material.

Granted, much of what came out of the GTPR marketing, particularly that generated by American journalist Cy Warman, was designed as much to boost investment as to attract visitors. And while it must be said that the Grand Trunk Pacific never had the focused marketing of the Canadian Pacific, their corporate style was to slavishly reproduce the success of CP – whose Van Horne famously commented, “If we can’t export the scenery, we will import the tourists.”

With railways the journey itself was always paramount. Prince Rupert was a stop in a journey managed by the railway. All along their lines they built increasingly palatial hotels to give them a competitive advantage (although here the hotel plans were just drawn up to trick investors and government into thinking that the GTPR actually intended to fulfill contractual obligations). And from the very beginning, the railways recognized the powerful link between rail and sea, launching coastal steamers that became the precursors of today’s ferries and cruise ships.

That link between rail and sea, the Skeena River and the Inside Passage, remains vital today – though at that time it was also driven by reality. As the Daily News pointed out in May 1932, the growth of tourism was linked to growing automobile traffic, and the provincial government was still unwilling to link Prince Rupert by highway with the rest of the province. Yet, despite the founding of a Convention & Visitors’ Bureau in the 1930s, Prince Rupert didn’t try to be more than a stopping point. C.L. Lockert, a retired Tennessee professor who visited in July 1950, lamented the lack of publicity for this “scenic capital of America.”

Word of mouth, and outside effort, brought steady growth in tourism volumes. Rupert’s reliance upon travel writers began early. One example I happen to have close at hand, because it is quoted in Michael Dawson’s Selling British Columbia, is from Saturday Night in 1921; where writer Irene Todd rhapsodized over our “softly breathing sea,” and “shaggy islands over which a few stars kept watch.” This really took flight with the founding of Beautiful British Columbia magazine in 1959. One of the most brilliant, effective marketing moves in BC tourism history, inexpensive subscription rates drove this lavish magazine around the globe, offering some of the earliest promotion of heartlands communities such as Prince Rupert.

The result of all this was that by 1982 some 200,000 non-resident vehicles were passing through Prince Rupert annually.

Most early tourism businesses here were established just to capitalize on existing traffic. It wasn’t until the 1990s that we began to think differently. The harsh truth is that we needed it rubbed in our faces. The value of tourism simply wasn’t recognized by any but a few local visionaries. A single example of Rupert’s attitude was provided at the beginning of August 1984, when the scheduled visit of the cruise ship Universe was bumped from Ocean Dock by a log ship, one moment in a cycle of apathy that removed us from the Alaska cruise theatre.

Once we focused on tourism, we were able to quickly steer the passing traffic into local activities, and finally make Prince Rupert a destination in itself, instead of a stop along the way.

My point in all this is that tourism has always been with us in Prince Rupert, and it’s not going anywhere. Tourism remains the province’s fastest-growing industry despite periodic fluctuations.

It grew even when we ignored it, grew much faster when it caught our attention, and given what we have to offer there is no telling what it might grow to if we continue to invest with each passing year.