The tourism season unofficially starts this week as the county and others go off to the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show to promote our area. In April a more official launch will take place. Tourism is an important part of the local economy, but often does not get the recognition it deserves.
Former county warden George McCleary, who heads the county’s tourism committee, acknowledges very clearly the importance of tourism to Northumberland.
“Tourism is about economic development,” he says. “We do it on a county-wide basis and leave each municipality to do its own thing. We like to look at it in the big picture. And, there is a role for all people.”
But he also recognizes how it has become a Gordian knot, which is so complex and tangled, it doesn’t always function properly.
Certainly, McCleary’s heart is in the right place by wanting to involve as many people as possible. But the reality is far from being that simple. The list of tourism groups is huge. There are municipal tourism departments, the county’s own tourism advisory group, Chambers of Commerce, The Heritage Shores group, the Rice Lake Tourism Association, the promotion program along the Trent River, the Apple Route in the east along Lake Ontario. Add to this all the independent business people trying to make a living and you can begin to grasp the scope of the situation.
Let’s give an example of what can happen when things aren’t co-ordinated.
The Ontario government each year creates a tourism guide for the province called Ontario Canada Discovery Guide. Inside the 402-page full colour promotion booklet is a huge amount of information from attractions, to accommodations, food and other services for tourists. It is sent out to all tourism booths in Ontario, but it available to anyone in North America seeking information. It is the major vehicle the province uses to attract people.
But when you look inside for information about Northumberland, the picture is inconsistent and confusing. Port Hope promotes attractions like its Canadian Firefighter’s Museum and the Capitol Theatre. Grafton features the Barnum House Museum. Cobourg’s featured attractions are a bingo hall and a café/gallery. You have to read the small print to find references to our beaches and historic Victoria Hall. Brighton features no attractions. There isn’t even a description of the town or what goes on.
Until recently, the province provided the space in the guide for free. Now, it is user-pay. A portion remains free, but a majority of the space is often clearly given over to paying customers.
Some will argue this is a small example and there are plenty of successful promotions that bring attention to our area. True. But if you were someone sitting in Biloxi, Mississippi or St. Petersburg, Florida, would you come here?
It is also possible, with small tourism promotion budgets, that target marketing must be done to be cost-efficient. True, too. But if there was a high level of co-operation and pooling of resources, then the overall budget may not be so small and more could be done.
And that is where we come back to the county.
Its record on tourism is poor. McCleary admits the county has not done a good job with the tourism portfolio and it often is stuck at the bottom of the priority list while other issues like restructuring and waste get the spotlight (and dollars). It is no surprise all these tourism groups are breaking away to create their own mechanisms to promote themselves. But it also leaves an uneven, scattered message to visitors. It also fosters resentment as some groups can afford to spend money and get profile while others are left in obscurity.
The county needs to regain its credibility as a co-ordinating force within tourism. Its advisory committee has seen some success over the past year with the county tourism guide. But it can’t stop there. It can provide a broader perspective to local groups about what is going on throughout the county and co-ordinate a comprehensive profile of the county to the rest of the world.
It is hard to do anything when local, smaller bodies won’t co-operate and there are some bitter feelings toward the county for mistakes in the past, which must be resolved before anything is going to happen.
Rather than 10 or more tourism promotion groups in Northumberland, three or four should exist: a lakeshore association, a Trent River group, Rice Lake and possibly another. Centralized, co-ordinated programs should be adopted both information and money should be shared.
This is not a new idea. But it comes back to power, as so many issues in Northumberland do. Taxpayers should demand better co-ordination. Tourism operators should do the same. A little less politics and a more pragmatic approach should be taken. And the county should not abandon this part of its economic development strategy.
In the meantime, if you see a lost person chain-smoking and carrying a bagful of funny-looking magic markers in Cobourg, direct them to the bingo parlour.