Artist and author Emily Carr once noted that what defined British Columbians was a common love of “seeing B.C.”. With the recent launch of a new corporate strategy and a revitalized tourism brand celebrating “Super, Natural British Columbia”, Marsha Walden, Destination British Columbia CEO, is determined to spread that message further than ever before.
Interviewed at the Crown corporation’s headquarters in downtown Vancouver, Walden—a graduate of Point Grey secondary and UBC who spent a decade at the British Columbia Lottery Corporation before joining DBC (formerly Tourism B.C.) in late 2013—told the Georgia Straight about places that hold emotional connections for her. The top two are Whistler and the Shuswap region in south-central B.C., where the mother of three vacations annually at her husband’s family cabin.
“These are the kinds of places where you can reconnect with who you are and what the best part of you is,” she said. “The key motivators we’re using to attract more visitors are that B.C. is clean, safe, and populated by open-minded people who live in cities perched on the wilderness. It’s not just nature; it’s the raw wilderness that’s so accessible in B.C.”
Her sentiments reflect an ongoing shift in consumer dynamics. “Today’s tourists are looking for unique adventures, not just traditional sightseeing but an experience that touches them and makes them feel they’ve seen something new.” Such expectations are front of mind not only with B.C. residents, who make up 70 percent of vacationers, but also with an increasing number of visitors from outside the province, primarily the U.S. and China.
Reached by phone in Williams Lake, Amy Thacker agreed. “People want to meet the locals; it’s a shift we’re seeing everywhere,” the CEO of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association told the Straight. “In this impersonal, technological age, travel, for me, is about slowing down and finding the meaningful things in life.”
Asked to pinpoint her haunts of choice, Thacker, who spent her childhood traversing B.C. and Yukon, laughed. “I’m a B.C. baby who’s lived in so many places I couldn’t pick one. My family just loves being in nature, whether exploring the Kootenays or soaking in the Bella Coola hot springs.”
Both Walden and Thacker expressed a fondness for exploring the growing number of designated driving routes, such as the 2,113-kilometre Coast Cariboo Circle Route that links the Lower Mainland with Vancouver Island, the Central Coast, the Interior Plateau, and the Fraser Canyon. “It’s all connected,” Thacker observed. “Most travellers don’t just parachute into a location. Reaching a destination includes experiencing the whole route. When a section of that journey is impacted the way that cuts in ferry service between Vancouver Island and Bella Coola devastated tourism in the Chilcotin, that has an impact on tourism in the Fraser Canyon, too, where the new Gold Rush Trail initiative is just being rolled out.”
Although the initial focus of Destination B.C.’s new campaign is on ski markets in Ontario, Washington state, and California, Walden has faced some tough calls on the home front. Chief among them was DBC’s decision to cease funding the Vancouver, Coast & Mountains Tourism Region office. The nonprofit first opened its doors in 1972, and current CEO Kevan Ridgway was clearly surprised by the news.
Interviewed at his Commercial Drive office, Ridgway said Walden told him VC&M had been so successful in convincing Lower Mainland municipalities to institute a two-percent hotel room tax to fund local tourism initiatives that DBC didn’t need to invest further in his organization. “We support tourism in our region by making
presentations to mayors and councils to encourage them to work cooperatively with neighbouring communities in joint tourism marketing campaigns, such as we did most recently when VC&M convened a meeting of White Rock, Surrey, and Richmond.
“The role we’re playing at the moment is fulfilling commitments to regional partners and helping staff members find new positions. We’re being used as a guinea pig for DBC’s plans for the rest of the tourism regions in following years. Our board made the decision to work with DBC to make meaningful decisions rather than take a full-scale advocacy position against our closure. We don’t want to lose the long history built up by our efforts, so we’re going into a shell position, renewing our trademark for another 15 years and waiting to see what happens before the next election.”
When asked which industry voices she’d heard calling for an end to funding for regional tourism offices, Walden said that one of the observations she made early on in her new role was that “we’re all here to serve industry. I conducted 200 one-on-ones. We’re looking at what is the best role for DBC, such as our partnership agreement with Vancouver, Coast & Mountains. A decade ago, only seven cities collected the two-percent tax. Today it’s 50. What, then, is the role of the regional office when there’s tons of infrastructure now in place?”
For his part, Ridgway pointed with pride to successful partnerships spawned under his leadership. “Thanks to funding from us, followed by the Vancouver Hotel Association, Tourism Vancouver led the way in marketing the city to the gay community. We’re making big inroads with Chinese tourists on the new Gold Rush Trail
in the Fraser Canyon. That market is evolving quickly.”
For now, Ridgway plans to head to his favourite destination—the Sunshine Coast—and see a lot more of B.C. along the way.