People travel from around the world to see our backyard. From the dazzling peaks and lush meadows of the Rocky Mountains to the multi-hued canyons and wind-sculpted hoodoos of the Alberta badlands, Alberta offers an abundance of opportunities for adventure. And for domestic and international travelers, Calgary is a desirable jumping-off point from which to experience the wealth of adventure tourism opportunities on offer both within the city and as a gateway to nature.
A natural connection
Research shows stress and anxiety are linked to physical and mental health. Studies also suggest exposure to nature can increase life satisfaction and reduce the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and other stress-induced health issues. As the benefits of being in nature have become more widely understood, outdoor activities and tourism – including adventure tourism - have become exponentially more popular. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have worked to mitigate the adverse mental and physical consequences of lockdowns, with a key go-to remedy: spending time in nature. And while the widespread closures and public health restrictions of 2020 meant a 32 per cent drop in visits to national parks, Banff National Park still topped the list as Canada’s most visited. 70 per cent of Canadians said their appreciation for parks and green spaces increased during COVID-19 with over half of Canadian cities reporting an increased use of parks through the pandemic.
Opportunity takes root
Adventure tourism is any tourist activity that includes physical activity, a cultural exchange, or activities in nature. It’s rapidly growing worldwide, and Alberta, particularly Calgary, as a city sometimes called the gateway to the Rockies, is well positioned to build and amplify a thriving sector focused on experiences in nature and active lifestyles. Cycling, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, skiing, and canoeing are all adventure tourism staples highly sought after by outdoor enthusiasts globally. Such activities attract both domestic and international travellers, and generate economic, environmental, cultural, and health benefits.
Research by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) shows tourists seek transformative cultural and environmental experiences while travelling. ATTA indicates tourists also look for opportunities to learn, have meaningful experiences, enjoy activities in a natural environment, and experience a new culture.
Room to grow
Globally, the adventure tourism market is expected to reach $1.16 trillion by 2028, an increase of more than 20 per cent from 2020. The economic potential of the adventure tourism market is significant, with travellers spending more money on adventure tourism experiences than any other type of travel. However, global competition for the market is growing, and Canada – including provinces with a wealth of adventure tourism opportunities – is at risk of being left behind. According to the Adventure Tourism Development Index, Canada ranks seventh globally among developed countries with strong potential for adventure tourism competitiveness, but since 2016, has fallen from the top five in North America and Europe as a top potential choice destination for adventure travel.
In Canada broadly, and Alberta specifically, more can be done to realize the full potential of our collective adventure tourism experiences. Travel Alberta identifies “Curious Adventurers” as a high-value target market – this market segment is most interested in the mountains and rural areas and looks to engage more deeply with destinations and activities, including outdoor excursions and camping. And what are the benefits of attracting these ‘high-value’ visitors? According to Travel Alberta, this type of traveller is likely to spend more per visit, yield a higher return on investment and make a higher contribution to Alberta’s economic growth. A study of British Columbia’s adventure tourism market noted the adventure tourist economy supports 2,200 businesses and generates more than $2 billion in annual income across the province. During and post-COVID, over 40 per cent of Canadians increased their use of outdoor trail networks and 52 per cent indicated they would include trail usage in future vacation plans. Recognizing the critically important role adventure tourism can play in regional and national economies, further investments in investing in and promoting Canada – and Alberta – as an adventure tourism destination will accelerate sector growth.
A country’s ability to realize economic benefits from this immense market potential is predicated on its capacity to offer tourists a variety of attractive locations and range of activities in different cities. In both cases, Canada is unparalleled in its ability to offer adventure experiences year-round. With regional and provincial tourism economies inextricably linked – there is an opportunity to attract both domestic and international travellers to explore the many backyards on offer from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Calgary, as a top transportation hub in western Canada, has a somewhat unique opportunity to further build and fortify its position as the nucleus for adventure tourism experiences in western Canada. Tourists can visit in the summer to enjoy cycling, rafting, fishing, or camping and return in the winter to try skiing, dog sledding, ice climbing, or snowshoeing. Access to a west coast adventure or a tour of the badlands is a puddle jump from Calgary, making the city an appealing and convenient hub for adventure travellers.
The path ahead
Investments in adventure tourism will not only attract international travellers but will also promote travel domestically. Additionally, strategic investments have the potential to ensure the economic benefits of adventure tourism can be fully realized locally, regionally, and across the country.
The Federal Government has a number of initiatives in place focused on growing Canada’s tourism economy. To further attract and monetize adventure tourism, the Calgary Chamber has developed several recommendations to capitalize on the strengths and opportunities of Canada’s adventure tourism economy and create a clear path to economic recovery for the tourism sector, which was among the hardest hit by the pandemic:
Under Pillar 1 of the Federal Tourism Growth Strategy, create a sixth product line within the Canadian Experiences Fund specific to adventure tourism to promote health, sustainability, and associated economic benefits. This functions to spur development and investment in experiences that reap both economic and social benefits.
Under the aforementioned adventure tourism product line within the Canadian Experiences Fund, allocate funding toward the development of multi-use infrastructure that supports the adventure tourism industry, such as the ʔapsčiik t̓ašii multi-use pathway in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
In line with the Federal Tourism Growth Strategy’s goal of supporting capital assets in Canada’s national parks, conservation areas and historic sites, provide federal funding in support of sustainable infrastructure projects – including rail projects – that connect tourists to adventure tourism destinations in Canada, such as Banff National Park.
Expand and permanently implement pilot programs that enhance or promote participation in adventure tourism experiences – such as the Bow Valley Parkway Experience – and identify additional, adventure tourism-specific, programming for future consideration.
Work with federal partners to develop and implement a Canada-wide adventure tourism marketing campaign to incentivize adventure tourism by promoting its associated physical and mental health benefits.
As Canadians resume travel, it is critical to position tourism experiences as world-class and in line with evolving consumer demand, encouraging Canadians to travel closer to home and rediscover the wonders in our own backyards. Similarly, as we move forward to attract and welcome international visitors, we stand at a key juncture to capitalize on a newfound appreciation for natural wonders and experiences.
Taken holistically, strategic investments into Canada’s adventure tourism market have the potential to ensure Canada can realize the full economic benefits of adventure tourism and expand the potential of regional adventure tourism offerings. With the right investments, collaboration among governments and tourism operators, and a focus on delivering sustainable, authentic, and accessible experiences in the outdoors, we can put a pin in the map among visitors as the adventure tourism destination of choice.