Want Tourists? Take Your Cue from What the Locals are Already Doing

What do old cars, scuba diving, and a recreational canal have in common?

In my hometown of Welland, Ontario, they’re being combined to attract tourists. And, according to the experts, it might just be the way to go.

A number of years ago, I served as a volunteer appointed by City Council to the Welland Recreational Canal Corporation. Our job was to serve as “stewards” of the waterway, and to improve, develop, and protect the waterway and its surrounding lands. It was there that I first learned about the potential attraction of the canal to scuba divers as we worked to develop a Master Plan for the future.

The canal water is clear and, as a result of having few currents, it is quite safe.  However, we also learned that more is needed because it is what is at the bottom of a body of water that keeps it interesting for divers. Thus the idea of creating a scuba “park”, consisting of submerged platforms, as well as sunken old cars (with hazardous fluids drained), and old boats. Think of it as being similar to adding the accessories to an aquarium to keep things stimulating for the goldfish as they swim around.

While at first it may seem like a strange priority, it is important to consider outdoor recreation as an economic development strategy. According to expert Joe Pavelka, in a recent session he delivered at the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association conference, outdoor recreation activities can help a community diversify their local economy, in a mostly sustainable way, and contribute to destination branding. 

As he explains, outdoor tourism can include a variety of activities that require minimal physical conditioning and risk such as birdwatching, cycling, canoeing, kayaking, camping, fishing, and walking tours. These are typically referred to as “soft” adventure and have the largest market size as their appeal is more widespread.

Other types of outdoor tourism experiences, often labeled “hard” adventure, need some degree of physical conditioning and technical skill. They are accompanied by managed, but real risks to the participant. Scuba diving would fall into this category as would whitewater kayaking or skydiving. Typically these are commercially guided and facilitated and purposively designed to attract non-residents.

Pavelka stresses the importance of international tourists as a potential market as well as the 5.3 million Canadians who claim to be Soft Adventure Enthusiasts. These tend to be what he terms as FITS (fully independent travelers) who are generally between the ages of 18 to 45, part of adult-only households with higher than average income and education. They are looking for authentic, rich experiences that are a departure from their daily lives. They also want to be good at it and progress relatively quickly, even if it means paying for more personalized training and support.

The focus on authenticity is of critical importance as it lessens the potential of contrived or purely commercial outdoor recreation offered within a community. According to Pavelka, authenticity typically equates to an activity that is already being done by local residents. In fact, he suggests the very best way for a community to use outdoor recreation to attract tourists to their community is to begin by looking around them to see what residents are already doing - meaning commercial, non-intensive, low-yield activities. 

It seems that is exactly what Welland has done in placing an emphasis on both soft and hard outdoor recreation activities, as well as sports tourism and the flatwater racing that includes rowing, canoeing, kayaking, and dragon boat racing. It is a critical diversification strategy for Welland, and for other communities looking to fill the gap created by the loss of industry.

Posted on 11-07-10


Tourists play a big role in our country’s development. Once they get a good impression, they’ll keep coming back. And not just that, their population will grow too. It’ll help attract investors and businessmen. It’s just a matter of how you introduce place. Be positive when you talk about yours.

•Posted by Christina Rogers  on  07/26/11  at  11:34 AM

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