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East Coast Trail brings in millions of dollars

By: | March 17, 2015

But it only receives support from a fraction of us.

Douglas Ballam
The Green Space examines issues affecting the natural world we live in, with an in-depth focus on Newfoundland and Labrador.

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View from the Southside Hills, on the East Coast Trail just outside St. John's, looking toward Cape Spear. Photo by Zach Bonnell.

On March 10, the East Coast Trail Association announced the results of an economic impact study. It will come as no surprise to most people that in 2013 the trail generated $3.5 million in tourism spending. To me, these monies were the least of the benefits associated with the trail. I’ve written here before that I believe the trail is one of the greatest in the world. And I’m not the only one.

In 2010, National Geographic declared the Avalon Peninsula one of the top coastal destinations in the world, due in part to its world class hiking. In 2012 the magazine named the East Coast Trail one of the world’s “Best Adventure Destinations“. Yet, as the trail association’s study revealed, less than three per cent of those polled admitted to being paying members.

The trail doesn’t create or maintain itself. An astonishingly dedicated group of board members and volunteers put in thousands of volunteer hours every year. But they still need cold, hard cash. They’ve recognized that, to get the funds the trail requires, they need to “talk turkey”. In other words, they need to reduce the many tangible and intangible benefits of the trail to dollars and cents. This is a fact that the cultural heritage industry recognized decades ago.

Cultural industry successfully garnered government support

In the 1990s, a group of cultural industry advocates commissioned a study to assess the economic impact of the sector’s work in Newfoundland and Labrador. The results could not have been better. The study showed that the industry contributed more than $170 million to our economy. This result led directly to the creation of the provincial government’s Cultural Economic Development Fund to provide “financial support to professional arts organizations for events or projects that stimulate sustainable economic development of the province’s cultural resources.”

East Coast Trail. Photo by Genevieve Brouillette.

More than 14,600 hikers used the East Coast Trail in 2013. Photo by Genevieve Brouillette.

The fund has funneled tens of millions of dollars into the cultural industry. In fact, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador spends more per capita in this area than any other province. Now, I don’t particularly have an issue with this funding (although I do cringe when I hear cultural advocates complaining that they do not receive any support from government). The cultural industry has done its homework and is exceedingly good at lobbying politicians. But I do take issue with the fact that there is no similar fund to encourage the economic development of nature-based tourism industries or groups.

I’ve written at length several times in this space that ours is the only provincial government that does not have some sort of fund for such groups (heck, we don’t even have a plan or strategy to deal with ecotourism).

The East Coast Trail has benefited from government funding more than more nature-based groups, but they still struggle every year to maintain the trail and expand into new areas. The challenges they face are many. The utterly incomprehensible state of private land ownership in our province is the source of many headaches, I’m sure. That trail extends through areas that have been settled for hundreds of years. Between the great fires of the 1890s, which burned many historical ownership records, and our provincial government’s inability to bring the land registry system into the 21st century, the progress of the trail system has been nothing short of miraculous. And, as some of us have the misfortune to know, lawyers don’t come cheap.

$3.5 million is a very conservative estimate

The $3.5 million dollar contribution quoted in the study seems low to me. More than 14,600 hikers used the trail in 2013. Sure, that breaks down to about $240 per hiker. But, almost 8,400 of those hikers were from outside the province and many of them came here explicitly to hike the trail. They all must have some sort of magic carpet or Star Trek transporters, because you can’t get on or off this island for $240.

I participated in a similar economic impact assessment project many years ago. Without going into much detail, the study looked into how much a protected area contributed to the local economy. The results were low — so low, that we thought releasing the amount might be counter-productive. I looked at the study in detail and was surprised to see that the authors did not count any expenditure from local residents. Why not, I asked — isn’t our money as good as visitors’ money from away? Apparently not, or at least at that time it wasn’t. The author’s response was that the accepted methodology did not include local residents’ expenditures because they did not contribute to the provincial GDP, or some such nonsense. No amount of arguing would sway him. My understanding is that the methodology has since changed and now residents’ expenditures are considered in economic impact studies. My point here is not to disparage anyone, but to point out that these studies are not exact or perfect. The economic contribution of the Association’s study should be considered a minimum, and a bare minimum at that.

We all could do more

The results also showed that the Association has earned a lot of goodwill. More than eight in 10 individuals and businesses surveyed said the trail had a positive impact on them personally. An impressive nine in 10 believed the trail deserved some sort of protection (remember the mountain bike debate from last summer).

But, this support does not extend to the pocket book. Even though 42 per cent of trail users were local residents, less than three per cent admitted to being paying members of the Association.

Indeed, a majority stated that government should provide core funding for the Association. Although I agree that government (and, by extension, us) should provide stable and consistent funding, we all could be doing more. After all, given how many people use the trail and how much it improves our quality of life, we’d only be paying ourselves.

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Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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