Newfoundland and Labrador does not have an ecotourism strategy

And rural parts of the province are suffering for it

I would like to start this column with some praise for the provincial government. Everyone has seen the provincial tourism ads. While some leave me scratching my head, they are, one and all, beautifully shot. These ads are largely the result of a significant investment by the Progressive Conservative government. In February, during the annual Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador Conference, Minister Terry French proudly announced that tourist expenditures have exceeded $1 billion. This is a significant achievement and one worthy of praise. But, despite this achievement, we are ignoring one of the largest segments of the tourism industry – ecotourism. And, given ecotourism occurs in natural settings, rural areas of the province are suffering for this wilful ignorance.

Terms such as ‘ecotourism’, ‘nature-based tourism’ and ‘geo-tourism’ are used interchangeably by most people. They are, however, quite distinct. For the purposes of this column, I will stick with ecotourism. The generally accepted definition of ecotourism goes something like this: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” There are three key parts to this definition. First, one must have natural areas worth visiting. Second, travel there must be “responsible” – we shouldn’t love something to death. Third, ecotourism works to benefit local people. In other words, successful ecotourism benefits the people who live near the natural areas.

Who cares about ecotourism?

Many moons ago, I worked in the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation (TCR). My job included identifying candidate natural areas for protection. Needless to say, I was little involved in tourism planning. It was my distinct impression that most people in the department showed, if not disdain, then a disregard for ecotourism. It was (and may still be) considered a “niche” market (tourism-speak for a small portion of the total tourism market). For example, Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, a natural showcase unrivaled anywhere on the planet, was only of interest to fanatic birders. That’s like saying that Niagara Falls only attracts people interested in wading pools. As a case in point, to my knowledge, there is not a single professional working in either the Department of TCR or Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL) with a specific mandate to advance ecotourism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ecotourism is big money, but not for us

In a 2004 study conducted in British Columbia, the nature-based tourism was calculated to be worth nearly a billion (yes, with a “b”) dollars. Unfortunately for some, not all provinces are created equal when it comes to their “natural” product. Rest assured, however, that Newfoundland and Labrador stand out and have sites and features that rival any in Canada. Even considering the difficulties in getting here, the untapped potential for ecotourism is enormous.

Do we have the goods?

I have been fortunate to travel much of the province. I can personally attest that there are many natural areas in our province that are second to none in Canada. As a case in point, the South Coast of the Island is truly spectacular. High fjords cut deeply into the stark bedrock of the coastline. As you travel by boat into the fjords, it’s like visiting a holy cathedral – one is stunned into respect. The Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation has, in a rather understated way, called this region the “Coast of Bays”. Truly, I cannot think of a rural region of the province that does not boast some excellent ecotourism opportunities.

If only we treated ecotourism like cultural tourism

In stark contrast to the inaction on ecotourism, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has done an outstanding job in advancing “cultural” tourism. Cultural tourism is an umbrella term for tourism associated with historic sites, cultural events, etc. Recognizing that the only way to secure adequate funding (and politicians’ attention) was to talk money, leaders in the cultural industry acquired funding from ACOA and other sources to conduct an assessment of the economic impact of cultural activities and tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador. (The study was conducted in the late 1990s, I believe, and I could not find an on-line version to provide a link).

There's great potential for ecotourism in places like Labrador's Torngat Mountains (pictured here). Photo by Matt Grant.
There’s great potential for ecotourism in places like Labrador’s Torngat Mountains. Photo by Matt Grant.

The results of the study were impressive though and convinced the provincial government to invest in the industry. The Cultural Economic Development Program was born. This program, with total funding exceeding $17 million, provided funding for community museum operating grants and funding for heritage projects. Not only did this program raise the bar for the cultural industry, it helped fuel a resurgence of interest in Newfoundland and Labrador culture.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I find that most people in Newfoundland and Labrador get a little turned off when words like “natural area” or “eco” are used often in a conversation. I think this is part of our culture. A hundred years ago there were vigorous protests against the seal hunt. Not because of any concern over the seals, but because too many men were dying. We are only a few generations removed from a life and death struggle against nature. I don’t believe we’ve matured as a society yet to the point where we recognize that we are stewards of our natural environment. You may ask, “what does this have to do with ecotourism?” Well, until we become active stewards of our natural world, we will not appreciate or understand it. And if we don’t understand our natural world – if we don’t understand our ecotourism product – how can we successfully utilize ecotourism?

Time to move forward

In 2004, then-tourism minister Clyde Jackman stated that the “…Department will continue its focus on culture over the next three years.” Well, they did that. Given the absence of any ecotourism planning, support or focus, it is past time for the provincial government and HNL to focus on ecotourism for a while. Hire a professional. Conduct an economic impact study. Design a program similar to the Cultural Economic Development Program. And create some long-term, sustainable jobs in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fracking update

About a month ago I wrote a column about a fracking or hydraulic fracturing proposal in western Newfoundland. In my column, I recommended that a citizens’ committee (with industry) and a study be conducted on the conditions specific to Newfoundland and Labrador. Well, it seems like the good State of Illinois has done something like this. In New Brunswick, there have been calls for much the same thing, although people seem very hesitant to use the word moratorium. Whatever. The point is we should not proceed commercially until we have the regulatory regime and Newfoundland-specific information needed to address the valid public concerns. Unfortunately, there are reports that the proponents are already arranging for expensive equipment to be shipped here to start fracking pending regulatory approvals – you know, those new regulations that were passed based on a sober review (not)? Here’s a prophecy – the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will approve Shoal Point Energy’s plans in the absence of any specific regulatory regime. Sorry folks – this industry is the tail that wags the government.

Protected Areas update

Two weeks ago I wrote that the PCs have not fully established a single protected area since 2003. I’m pleased to report that this statement is now wrong. Regulations for the Sandy Cove Ecological Reserve were passed on March 4th, 2013. This small (6.1 hectares) but very important protected area includes the last natural population of Long’s Braya (Braya longii) in the world. While I praise the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, I encourage them to accelerate the establishment of protected areas. If we want to protect, say, 12% of the province, then at the rate of 6.1 hectares every 10 years, we’ll still be working on this in 200,000 years.

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