Neglecting ecotourism means neglecting rural NL

If the provincial government is truly interested in rural diversification, it needs to stop ignoring an industry with huge potential

“Tourism is top priority for rural diversification,” the headline read. This should be interesting, I thought.

Well, it turns out I’m an idiot. As in, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me 10,000 times — I’m an idiot.” For a second I thought the article would announce some new initiative to boost ecotourism in the province, but I should have remembered what happened the previous 9,999 times I got my hopes up. Instead, the article details what was described as a chummy session between Paul Davis (our new premier) and the small business community of Conception Bay South. Tourism was mentioned as an important economic generator for rural Newfoundland, but little of substance seems to have been discussed.

I erroneously thought that the premier may have spoken about ecotourism because the provincial government has largely ignored (to put it mildly) this facet of our tourism industry. For an administration that is struggling in more than just the polls, ecotourism would be such a simple sell. Who would be offended by a plan that would actually increase rural diversification? Indeed, I imagine such a plan would reap some (currently largely unheard-of) praise. But instead, ecotourism was ignored once more. Unlike cultural tourism—in which we have invested heavily and continue to promote—ecotourism opportunities remain untapped.

Ecotourism is often described as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Rural communities are usually the beneficiary of ecotourism expenditures because natural areas are generally not accessed from large, urban cities. All of my intense Newfoundland pride aside, our province has unparalleled opportunities for this type of tourism, especially compared with the rest of Atlantic Canada. Simply put, we’re different from the Maritimes. Our boreal landscape has some of the most dramatic scenery and best wildlife viewing opportunities in the world. Gros Morne National Park has become an iconic image of our province. The whales, seabirds and icebergs of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve draw tens of thousands of people from all over the world annually.

Boy and dog on wilderness trail. Photo by Douglas Ballam.
Boy and dog on wilderness trail. Photo by Douglas Ballam.

But it’s not all about the “mega-sites”. Tourism planners will tell you that many of today’s travelers are looking for the authentic experience. It’s one thing to go out on the water in a large tour boat. It’s another thing entirely for a single family to go out in a small boat with a local guide. There are over 300 seabird colonies around our island but we’ve really only tapped the tourism potential of a few of them. Why don’t we have a plan that identifies the next top 20, complete with target markets, training needs and so on? The same can be said for all aspects of our natural environment: whale viewing areas, scenic views, rare plants, fossils and so on. I’m not saying that everyone in the world will rush to see these areas. What I am saying is that no one is going to go see these areas if we don’t even know they’re there.

And that’s where our ecotourism industry is right now. No product inventory, no training plan to educate local guides, no specific fund targeting ecotourism — nothing. We seem to have an abundant appetite to support cultural tourism. We provide literally tens of millions of dollars for this tourism sector through the Cultural Economic Development Program. Ecotourism operators are out of luck — no such program for them. In government’s own words: “The preservation, celebration and presentation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s unique cultures are valued and valuable in their own right and must be supported. Concurrently, they remain a central focus of the province’s overall tourism development strategy.” Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.

Here’s some free advice for the current administration: Establish an expert ecotourism panel and get them to provide recommendations on how to advance this aspect of our tourism industry. What possible harm could that do? At the worst, you’ll have some recommendations that you don’t like. More likely, you’ll earn the praise of rural tourism workers, excite some entrepreneurs in the potential for new or expanded business opportunities and genuinely contribute to the future of some of our most vulnerable communities. The cultural tourism industry did something similar in the 1990s and they haven’t looked back since.

This is not a rant against cultural tourism but an appeal to recognize and develop the potential of ecotourism. Until we do so, we’ll be attempting to diversify our rural economy with one hand tied behind our back.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, 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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