Canada’s ‘jewel in the crown’ gets some well-deserved praise
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, November 1, 2003

Recalling the smells of the Pacific Ocean, the tulips in February and high tea at the Empress Hotel, anyone who has ever lived in Victoria, B.C., won’t be surprised to learn that among its 2003 Readers’ Choice Awards, the November issue of Condé Nast Traveler magazine rates it the top city in the Americas, and Vancouver Island as the top island destination in North America.

The awards couldn’t be more timely. After a summer in which forest fires and floods prompted a wave of concern across the nation, the cost to the B.C. economy is now becoming apparent. Estimates put the bill for forest fires at $5 billion worth of finished timber, an amount equivalent to 75 per cent of Canada’s softwood shipments to the United States last year. Add forest-fighting costs of $400 million, with reforestation estimated at another $100 million, plus $100 million for flood cleanup, and you have an additional burden of more than half-a-billion minimum on the province’s $2.3-billion deficit.

Throw in SARS, which placed a chill on Asian tourists, plus the Iraq War, which affected airline services, and you have major hits on two of British Columbia’s leading industries, forestry products and tourism. Last year, tourism alone pulled in 22 million visitors and more than $9 billion in revenues, more than $1.1 billion of which went to government. The renewable, non-polluting, U.S.-rich industry further employs 270,000 in 18,000 businesses across the province, and accounts for 20 per cent of all tourism dollars across Canada. But this year, things were getting so bad, industry leaders were resigned to licking their wounds and regrouping for 2004.

Then along comes Condé Nast Traveler magazine, with two million affluent readers and the kind of recognition for Victoria (Vancouver, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto also rated highly) that advertising dollars can’t buy. Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler are what the industry calls “volume leaders” (meaning visitors travel to other provincial destinations), so the whole of the province will benefit. And with the 2010 Olympics and 50,000 potential jobs on the horizon, tourism promises to take “Supernatural British Columbia” to new heights of industry and prosperity.

What’s so special about Victoria and Vancouver Island?

Students of Canadian history will recall how Captain James Cook in 1778 became the first white man to set foot on the west coast of Vancouver Island, at Nootka Sound. Inhabited by First Nations peoples, the rugged yet pristine wilderness of the island became the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company post at Victoria, then known as Camosack, in 1843. Fort Victoria quickly grew into a commercial and naval port, the seat of colonial and provincial governments and a modern city with a major university and international ties.

Today, Victoria’s English heritage style, in a sophisticated city designed on a human scale (300,000 population, no skyscrapers), combined with superb weather and walking conditions, are its key attractions. Victoria’s biggest draw is Butchart Gardens (100 years old in 2004) but ecotourism — whale watching, cycling, hiking and good beaches — makes outdoor activities the main tourism generators.

The factors that make B.C. a good place to visit also make it a good place to live. One national study determined that British Columbians on average smoke less, are less overweight and more active than other Canadians. “Living well,” concludes a Vancouver Sun editorialist, “is something British Columbians have evidently mastered.” Americans (mostly New Yorkers and Texans), who comprise 90 per cent of visitors to Victoria, apparently agree. Economic statistics and surveys apart, the political benefits of tourism can’t be discounted. Travellers from the time of Chaucer and Europe’s Grand Tourists, seeking recreation in new lands, have developed new tastes, preferences and ideas, in turn setting the stage for improved trade and international relations.

It’s anybody’s guess what the Condé Nast awards will mean for beleaguered B.C. in dollars and cents. A balanced budget? Ascending from have-not status? It’s not impossible. For Canadians, the international recognition establishes Victoria as the jewel in the crown of Canadian tourism from which all can learn and benefit. A new prime minister would build on this achievement and assist with the kind of transportation and other infrastructure that brings even more such accolades, in B.C. and elsewhere.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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