16 million of international tourists visited Canada in 2012. They were even more in 2013: 18,2 million, mainly going to Ontario (7,7 million), British Columbia (4,3 million) and Quebec province (2,9 million). As canadian population is 35 million, those are pretty impressive numbers. It means that Canada is welcoming the equivalent of half its own population, of international travellers, per year.
As a comparison, the USA welcomed 67 million of international tourists in 2012, for a population of 350 million (which makes the tourist proportion around 20% of the country’s population). However, flights to Canada tend to be more expensive, and there are only a handful of cities to visit compared to the US.
What is it in Canada’s image that fascinates international travellers so much?
Well, there is an extensive mythology around Canada that territorial branding contributed to create and maintain around the world. Canada is “big”, “wild” and “scenic” before being anything else, in the mind of most tourists. Of course that perception varies according to traveler’s provenance: the largest tourist provider of Canada are the USA (almost 11 millions in 2013), followed by the UK (600,000), France (500,000), Germany (300,000) and Australia (220,000) for the Top 5.
It’s safe to assume that US visitors are not here for encountering an exotic form of remoteness, wilderness or immensity. They have enough on their side of the border. This tourism is more easily explained by proximity, good hospitality deals, family visits and business trips. European & australian visitors, on the other hand, have come a long way to visit. There are also around 6,000 Working Holiday Visas delivered every year for young people from a selection of countries to come spend a year work & travel around Canada. Those quotas usually drop from 6,000 to 0 in less than a day once programs application open.
Besides the current economic situation that drives a big part of visitor flows from the Old Continent to Canada, in the hope of finding a job and getting a work visa, there is still a strong attraction force playing that goes beyond the American Dream. It’s more than a quest for social ascension and personal accumulation of wealth. It’s more than the perspective of a good labour market and secure cities to rise a family.
Its about escaping crowded spaces to experiment some of the lowest human density of the world. Its about dreaming of insanely big land possession. Absolute freedom and wilderness. Wood house and a lake with no neighbour. Infinite rivers, water abundance, magical sceneries.
It feels like Canada does not have to work very hard to sell itself to the rest of the world. A couple of pictures featuring fantastic fall colours over the Laurentides, some icy foggy lake in Ontario and majestic giant trees in BC will automatically evoke Canada in the mind of most people, who will immediately sigh for it. It is so obvious that we tend to forget we were not born knowing that Canada is such a beautiful place.
This image is the results of repetitive, massive and constant efforts from canadian authorities to marketize the country as a welcoming, virgin land, the eldorado of outdoors adventurers where being a pioneer is still possible.
As New Zealand, Canada became very quickly the master of self promotion through nature (See the “Pure New Zealand Campaign to compare). In fact, as a former colonial country far away from homeland, Canada has started to worry about attracting people for a very long time. If first immigrants were largely forced to come, or had such bad life conditions in Europe that they’d rather try something else, it was not the case anymore after the country independence (1931).
United Kingdom stopped sending contingents, and even if the economical attraction of Canada was bringing some households in, the country lived with a constant demographic decline threat from then, and still does.
The choice of promoting wilderness, large available lands and scenery beauty is directly related to the arguments used to convince pioneers and farmers to come settle in Canada.
Conveniently, when rural exodus started and when cities started to become indisputable centres of the economy, tourism started to emerge as an economical sector. International tourism made possible by the development of commercial airlines, the potential market for Canada just expanded from a continental one to a global one.
The strategy of promoting wilderness for farmers and pioneers turned out to be also a great one for attracting upper middle class urban people from other countries, nostalgic about open spaces and “true nature” experiences they never had a chance to do.
Outdoors and wilderness are still among the arguments of the Canadian Commission of Tourism very official Canada’s Tourism Brand page. With the development of recreative sports and the nature domestication (new equipments like thermic textiles, new technologies like GPS that allow safe exploration), this strategy turned out to be the best possible to continue attracting visitors dying for having a chance to experiment the Canadian Dream.
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I strongly recommend this great paper on “The Use of Territorial Brands To Stand Out As A Tourist Destination“, to understand what territorial marketing is about (academic paper), as well as the 2013 Official Commercial video of Canada:
… as well as the 1990’s campaign aiming to attract US tourist, called “The World Next Door”, just for fun of comparison:
Pictures on this page are from the National Geographic Campaign called “Places of a lifetime” to promote diversity of sceneries and travel in Canada.