Where Canada’s new budget carriers will likely take you (and not take you)

Two-thousand and eighteen will presumably be the Year of the Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier in Canada. Already one such operation — the little-known Flair Airlines, which acquired the assets of “virtual airline” NewLeaf Travel this year — is in the air serving domestic routes, but has yet to make a substantial impact on the market. Three others, meanwhile, are planning to make an entrance.

  • Swoop, WestJet’s ultra-low-cost subsidiary, which is expected to begin selling seats in February in preparation for a June 1 launch. Destinations have yet to be announced, but Swoop will use 189-seat Boeing 737-800s — 21 more than are currently installed on WestJet’s 168-seat 737-800s.
  • Canada Jetlines, which is also planning on a June 1 launch. They plan to start with only domestic flights, from Hamilton, Ont. to Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Abbotsford, B.C. Flights from Hamilton to holiday destinations in the U.S., Mexico and the Dominican Republic would follow in the winter of 2018-19. Like Swoop, Jetlines also plans to operate 189-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
  • FlyToo, a proposed spin-off of charter carrier EnerJet, is considering getting into the market. As of late-November, however, no final decisions had been made yet on whether the airline would operate Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s, focus on domestic or international routes, or even stick with the “FlyToo” name or give the airline a different brand.

These airlines propose to offer Canadian travellers low base fares. Jetlines has said that it will offer fares comparable to the price of a pair of jeans, while Swoop has suggested that base fares will be about one-half of WestJet’s typical fares.

These carriers propose to emulate Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe, which offer very low base fares but charge extra not just for baggage and beverages, but even for having your boarding pass printed at the airport (€15, or $23 Cdn., on Ryanair) or to use their telephone call centre (£0.13, or $0.22 Cdn., per minute to call Ryanair’s U.K. call centre to make bookings; service not available during the evening or overnight hours.)

But if you think the extra charges are a small price to pay in exchange for being able to go visit Aunt Suzy in Ottawa for $250 round-trip or being able to hop over to Calgary for the same price to see a football game — not so fast.

There is a logic to how ultra-low-cost carriers make their money. It’s by going to the places where passenger loads increase rapidly as fares go down — and not going to the places where that correlation does not exist. (Or, if they do, they risk losing money and going out of business.)

For example, what if I offer you a non-stop flight from Winnipeg to Honolulu in February for $750 round-trip? You might think about it.

What if I offer you that trip for $500? Your interest has likely gone up a bit.

Now how about $400? Your interest has likely gone up still more.

Now forget all about Honolulu. What if I offer you a February round-trip to Thunder Bay for just $400?

“Ugh, no thanks,” you’d likely say.

Fine; I’ll lower the price to $200 round-trip, plus you can go in nice, warm July instead of frigid February.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

$100 round-trip? Your golden opportunity to spend a week in Thunder Bay!

“Forget it. What the hell am I going to do in Thunder Bay?”

The first map below shows a number of destinations in Europe and the Mediterranean served by Ryanair and/or EasyJet — except for the fictitious Zurich hub in the middle. If you ran a traditional hub-and-spoke system, you could connect all of these cities to each other through the hub. Since this requires a lot of passenger processing and daily (or near-daily) service to all destinations to work effectively, it’s a very expensive way of doing business — and the fares reflect that.

The traditional hub-and-spoke model: It offers frequent and convenient transportation between many cities, including those with too little traffic to ever support a non-stop flight, such as Belfast-to-Vilnius. But it’s a costly service to provide, so fares tend to be higher. (Map generated on gcmap.com)

So, the ultra-low-cost carriers fly point-to-point. They pick up a load of passengers in one city, drop them off in another, and then the jetliner flies away to someplace else. Only the most popular routes get daily service year-round. Many routes are only served two or three times per week on a seasonal basis; some routes even only get one flight per week.

Note the pattern in this map, which represents a random selection of routes on which Ryanair and/or EasyJet will be offering at least one non-stop per week in January 2018. Note that these carriers largely exist, with only the occasional exception, to bridge two divides:

– The divide between “cold and cloudy” northern Europe and the “hot and sunny” destinations;

– The divide between “richer Europe” and “poorer Europe”, following the prevailing migration patterns.

Note also that almost all of these routes are north/south. Very few are truly east/west.

A random selection of city-pairs that will have nonstop Ryanair and/or EasyJet service in January. Note how these are mostly north/south holiday routes; though some follow migration paths between richer and poorer areas of Europe. Cheaper for passengers — especially for tourists and people who’ve moved abroad in search of work — but only a few routes are offered on both a daily and year-round basis.

Now, consider the following random city-pairs that the ultra-low cost carriers will not be serving at all. Note that ultra-low-cost carriers largely do not exist to connect business capitals or cities with similar climates and similar levels of economic development.

A “non-service” map: Random city-pairs where neither Ryanair nor EasyJet can take you (at least on a cheap, non-stop basis) in January, despite serving these cities. Note that service between places with similar climates and similar levels of economic development — and thus more limited migration — is not the purpose of ultra-low-cost carriers.

In short, outside of a few exceptions, you need either a disparity in wealth or a disparity in climate to make an ultra-low-cost model work.

So, what should we expect from a successful ultra-low-cost carrier in Canada?

First — at least during the winter months — it will need to exist primarily to carry Canadians non-stop to warmer climates. If I were to place a bet, it would be on Swoop replacing WestJet entirely on some of its U.S. routes and most, if not all, of its Mexican, Bermudan, Cuban and other Caribbean routes. The other upstarts should consider doing the same: climate differences and the popular tourism paths are where the money is in the ultra-low-cost carrier business.

Second, to the extent that ultra-low-cost carriers do offer east-west routes, expect this to follow existing tourism and migration flows, at days and times that suit the holiday traveler. Do not expect daily or year-round service — this is what Air Canada and WestJet exist to do, and not what ultra-low-cost carriers make their money on.

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Contented Norway, Stressed-Out America: A tale of two countries, and what their governments spend the people’s money on

Nearly five years ago, The Economist published a front cover featuring a scruffy-looking Viking, accompanied by the words: “The Next Supermodel: Why the world should look at the Nordic countries.” While the world’s bigger countries and current and former superpowers struggled with their problems, the Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — seemed to have their act together, winning praise over and over again for their healthy economies, relatively low crime rates and high standards of living.

Over the intervening five years, not much has changed. The Nordics continue to be strong performers in all the areas that matter. When this blog looked at countries’ performance across four indices last May — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — the Nordics constituted at least four of the world’s 10 best countries, with Denmark taking the number-one spot. (Canada ranked either fourth or sixth, depending on whether you ranked each country by its “weakest link” or by its average score.)

Now there’s more good news for the Nordics. John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs of the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network have released their 2017 World Happiness Report, and concluded that Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland were the world’s happiest societies in the 2014-16 period.* They credit Norway’s high ranking on “mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance”, as well as good management of its oil reserves, and using the proceeds from it to prepare for a better future instead of spending it all as it comes in.

“Mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance” are not words, however, that would describe 2017 in our neighbour to the south. The United States has had a memorable 2017 for all the wrong reasons — and it showed in its rank. As noted:

The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th [Note: this might be a typo — the report’s data tables show the U.S. in 14th place; it was the U.K. that was in 19th place]. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption . . . and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.

The authors particularly singled out the U.S. government’s priorities for criticism. As they bluntly note on page 180:

America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis . . . This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy. Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed. First, most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth — especially the Republican Party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics — will only exacerbate America’s social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart. Second, a forthright attack on the real sources of social crisis would have a much larger and more rapid beneficial effect on U.S. happiness.

One could only imagine the authors’ alarm that, having just passed controversial tax reform legislation, there is now talk of targeting America’s already modest social safety net for deep cuts. As the New York Times reported on Dec. 2:

As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security. President Trump told a Missouri rally last week, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

In fact, the core items of the social safety net already constitute a relatively small share of total U.S. local, state and federal government spending. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data show that, in 2015, only 21 percent of total government spending was dedicated to what the OECD classifies as “social protection”; that is, sickness, disability, old age, housing and unemployment support.

This already puts the U.S. toward the bottom of OECD nations in terms of the percentage of local, regional and national government spending on social protection. Indeed, given the low priority their own governments give to their well-being, not to mention other abuses like drawing local electoral boundaries to guarantee one-party rule, why shouldn’t Americans feel bitterly resentful toward their governments?

In Norway, social protection was a significant 40 percent of all government spending in 2015 despite an unemployment rate of just four percent that year and 75 percent of all Norwegians aged 15-64 having a job — one of the highest rates in the world.

That spending paid off, according to a 2017 OECD report on Norway. Not only has it helped provide the sense of well-being that the lack of prompted many Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but it is something the OECD recommended that Norway leave intact (emphasis mine):

Fiscal reform should not aim to significantly reduce the scope of Norway’s comprehensive welfare programmes and public services. These are integral to its socio-economic model, playing a key role in making economic growth inclusive and keeping well-being high. Given the fiscal rule, this means that taxation will remain high compared with many countries. Consequently, a pro-growth tax mix, strong labour skills and easier regulations for doing business are needed for the business sector to thrive in global markets.

As we end 2017, revolution is in the air as like no other time in the past 50 years, if not the past 100 years. Some look to the hard-left for solutions to the high level of anxiety, some to the hard-right. What the world could really use, though, is a bit of Nordic sense by protecting not jobs, not industries, but people.

 

* – Canada ranked seventh in the World Happiness Report, just behind Finland and the Netherlands. New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10.

Trump Slump? Not really.

(Note: None of the following should be interpreted as an endorsement of the U.S. president’s odious conduct, in office or beforehand.)

When Donald Trump was sworn in as U.S. president in January, promising tourism-unfriendly ideas such as more aggressive border screening and a “Muslim ban”, this led to questions about whether or not the U.S. tourism industry would experience a “Trump Slump” as international tourists chose to holiday elsewhere.

So far, results have been mixed. “It’s official: Trump slump slows summer travel to the U.S.”, the MarketWatch business news site proclaimed in late April, noting that “online searches by prospective travelers to the U.S. have fallen by 6% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2017, according to a study from software company Adobe”. Yet in July, The Economistno friend of the president – noted that “Donald Trump’s effect on tourism has not been as bad as feared”.

The same words might apply to Canadians’ travel tendencies. Statistics Canada released its July 2017 international travel numbers this morning – the first month of the peak holiday season – and the findings show that the number of Canadians returning home from the U.S. was slightly higher in July 2017 than in the same month in 2016.

Returns home by Canadians visiting the U.S. were up three-tenths of a percentage point in July, compared to the same month in 2016, on a seasonally adjusted basis, which smooths out seasonal variations. On an unadjusted basis, which I’ll use below, the July 2017 numbers were up seven-tenths of a percentage point over July 2016.

This suggests that if there is a “Trump Slump” in Canada, it’s a mild one. Although one could argue that the small rise in cross-border traffic failed to keep up with population growth – Canada’s population grew 1.2 percent between July 2016 and July 2017 — and that per capita visits to the U.S.  were actually down a bit, Trump’s election and inauguration doesn’t seem to have had a drastic effect on Canadians’ travel habits.

More noteworthy is an ongoing change in how Canadians visit the U.S., and the growing international competition for the Canadian tourism dollar.

The number of Canadians returning home from the U.S. by automobile has been lower each July compared to the same time the previous year in each of the past five years. The effect was particularly noticeable in Manitoba, where the number of Canadians re-entering the country via one of our highway entry points along the Minnesota and North Dakota borders had declined for several consecutive years now, from 182,938 in July 2012 to 116,668 in July 2017.

Canadian cross-border travel has been shifting in recent years from road trips to air trips – up a whopping 15 percent year-over-year in July — which could suggest we’re less keen to visit nearby border states but still willing to visit more distant places like California and Florida; or perhaps New York City, a destination less suitable for motor trips.

The U.S. tourism industry also continues to feel the effect of increased competition from other countries. From 1972, the first year in which Statistics Canada started tracking these numbers, to 1997, 95 percent or more of Canadians returning from abroad each July were returning from the U.S. This enormous market share remained at 90 percent or better into the mid-2000s.

During the past four years, however, other destinations have been making quick inroads into the Canadian market. Whereas only two percent of Canadians returning from abroad in July 1972 were returning from countries other than the U.S., their collective share of the market ballooned from 11 percent in July 2013 to 19 percent in July 2017, pushing the U.S. share down from 89 percent to a still-dominant 81 percent.

The American tourism industry’s standing among Canadian summer travelers doesn’t seem to have suffered much as a result of the Trump presidency; but the availability of a growing array of international destinations at reasonable prices is certainly taking a bite out of their market share. This shows signs of being particularly felt in the northern border states whose tourism industries long courted road-tripping Canadians — a form of travel losing some of its lustre as more exotic options beckon.

The challenge of making an ultra-low-cost airline work in Canada

We haven’t seen a rush of potential new entrants into the Canadian airline market like this in 15 years.

Winnipeg-based NewLeaf Travel started operations just over a year ago as a “virtual airline”, selling low-priced tickets to places like Edmonton and Hamilton on chartered Boeing 737s. In recent months, Flair Air, NewLeaf’s primary chartered-aircraft provider, purchased NewLeaf’s assets and started operating the service under the Flair brand.

More recently, WestJet announced plans to start an ultra-low-cost “airline within an airline” to compete on price-sensitive routes. Jetlines, a completely new startup, announced a Summer 2018 proposed launch date; and Enerjet, a small Calgary-based charter operator, also hopes to get a proposed ultra-low-cost airline called FlyToo into the air.

All hope to avoid the fate of the low-cost startups of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. These included Greyhound Air (Greyhound quit the industry in 1997, aircraft operator Kelowna Flightcraft survived), JetsGo (bankrupt, 2005), CanJet (changed from a scheduled operator to charter operator, 2006; suspended operations, 2015) and Harmony Airways (suspended operations, 2007).

If Europe’s Ryanair can take you from London to Portugal for fares as low as £101 round-trip ($166 Cdn.), and Australia’s JetStar can offer a Sydney-Adelaide round-trip for as little as $224 (same in Canadian dollars), why has it been so difficult to make low-fares work in Canada.*

Quite often, high taxes and fees have been blamed. For example, a Sept. 6-13 round-trip between Winnipeg and Montreal on Air Canada can be booked for $391.57 if you’re willing to fly on the less heavily booked flights. Of this, $89.57 — or 23 percent — is made up of taxes, fees and charges.

The other challenge is in convincing enough passengers to part with enough money to make the venture profitable.

Let’s take Ryanair, one of the industry’s fiercest penny-pinchers, as an example. This is the airline alleged to have pressured flight attendants to meet sales targets, spread families and couples randomly throughout the cabin for not paying extra for seat selection, and which mused about charging passengers to use the toilet.

Ryanair’s costs are impressively low, averaging out to just 3.63 U.S. cents (4.6 cents Cdn.) per seat per kilometre in recent times. Only a few airlines, such as Air Asia, have been able to wrestle their costs any lower. One way Ryanair does this is by packing more seats into each aircraft: one of their Boeing 737-800s can carry 189 passengers; WestJet only fits 168 seats into the same space.

What if a Canadian operator, hypothetically called JetManitoba, started flying Boeing 737-800s around North America, and matched Ryanair’s low costs through a combination of low wages, no overnight crew stops, high-density seating and a stringent nobody-gets-anything-for-free pricing model?

JetManitoba Flight 1, our hometown low-fare leader, starts out early in the morning with a round-trip to Vancouver and back. In the afternoon, it does another round-trip to somewhere else.

At a rock-bottom cost of 4.6 cents per seat-kilometre, JetManitoba’s 189-seat Boeing 737 needs sales of $32,516 (before taxes, fees and charges) to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip nominally break even.

No problem, you might think. $32,516 divided by 189 seats is a very reasonable $172 per seat round-trip. Add the taxes, fees and charges to that, and you can still offer a no-frills round-trip to Vancouver for less than $300. Just make the profit off of charging people $25 per checked bag or roll-aboard, $15 per person each way for seat selection (at risk of being assigned a random seat if you don’t pay up), and $15 per person for a drink and a sandwich (because JetManitoba has a monopoly on food sales at 36,000 feet).

Now, imagine it’s early February. The Canadian tourism industry is largely in hibernation. Winnipeg is under a Wind Chill Warning because it’s -24°C at midday, with the wind blowing from the northwest at 30 gusting to 50 kilometres per hour. In Vancouver, it’s raining as usual and no one has actually seen the sun in more than a week. Hardly anyone wants to be on holiday in either city.

Then what? The business travellers, who have no choice but to travel, tend to prefer Air Canada and WestJet over JetManitoba because of the better schedules. That leaves you largely with a tiny pool of would-be passengers that you somehow need to get at least $32,516 from to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip break even.

It doesn’t matter if you convince 189 people to part with $172 (plus taxes, etc.) each or 50 people to part with $650 each. It’s raising enough to cover that average of $32,516 in bills per round-trip that counts.

You could have a sale, offering 25 seats you know you will never sell for $172 for $99 or even $59 just to get a bit of cash flow to help you get through the low season, even if the flights are unprofitable.

Or cancel your Winnipeg-Vancouver service until the summer and fly to places that people actually want to fly to in February, such as southern resorts, competing directly with other airlines already serving these destinations. Again, for each round trip, you need to find a way of separating enough people in the community from enough money to keep your bills from falling into arrears. Not easy if there are more seats available than people capable of filling them.

Or just park the plane and lay people off until the tourism business starts to pick up again in the summer. You’ll still need to pay for the plane, if you can’t rent it out for the season, but at least your payroll and fuel costs will come way down.

Those are the challenges of running an ultra-low-cost airline in Canada. It is very difficult to make it work in a country where domestic leisure tourism all but shuts down for two-thirds of the year, the less price-sensitive business travel market is already well-served, and the seasonal international leisure routes are also well served by existing operators.

The ultra-low-cost-carrier business might start out with four contestants. Don’t bet on it carrying on like that.

 

* – Seat-only prices. Baggage, seat selection, food, beverages, etc. all extra.

The stinginess goes on and on and on

“Big changes considered for Ontario workplaces,” said one headline on the CBC News Toronto web site this past February, after it had been revealed that, among other things, Ontario’s provincial government was considering raising the minimum annual holiday required by the province’s Employment Standards legislation from two weeks to three.

As far as annual holidays goes, however, what was ultimately proposed by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s government at the end of May certainly could not be described as “big”. Even to describe the proposed changes as “modest” could be considered an exaggeration.

The Ontario government is indeed proposing to raise minimum annual holidays from two weeks to three weeks. Here’s the catch, however: it only applies to those who have worked for the same employer continuously for at least five years. Anyone with less than five years’ service could still legally be offered only two weeks per year under the proposed change.

“We have fallen behind,” Wynne said as the proposed change was revealed.

“And we don’t really feel like catching up,” she might as well have added.

Even by Canadian standards, Ontario’s “two weeks for the first five years, then three weeks” plan represents an insignificant change. Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have all had the same conditions in their employment laws for years, while most other provinces and the federal Labour Code offer a third week after longer periods of service, ranging from three weeks after six years at the federal level to three weeks after 15 years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ontario and P.E.I. remain the only provinces without a third-week provision.

Saskatchewan is the only province to have broken the two-week baseline. Their laws provide for three weeks annual holiday to start, rising to four weeks after 10 years.

By international standards, Ontario’s not-so-big change looks even less impressive. In 1970, signatories to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Holidays with Pay Convention each pledged to provide for annual holidays that would be “in no case . . . less than three working weeks for one year of service.” Canada, however, was never among the signatories.

The list of advanced economies offering less than three weeks (or 15 working days) per year is small, and has been shrinking in recent years. The United States provides no legal minimum. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan each provide for seven days off. Japan and Israel are more or less on par with Canada at 10 to 12 working days. Then, that’s about it, except for a gaggle of smaller or less thoroughly developed economies.

Now, compare that to Australia. Australians first won the right to two weeks annual holiday with the Annual Holidays Act in 1945. This was raised to a three-week minimum — still unheard of in Canada outside of Saskatchewan — in 1963. That country further increased the legal minimum to four weeks in 1974.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand — a country which dislikes being compared to Australia, but I’ll do it here anyway — was a little more restrained. They won two weeks annual leave in 1944, threw in a third week 30 years later, and finally raised their legal minimum to four weeks per year in 2007.

Surely to God a modest boost from two weeks to three weeks annual holiday per year, merely meeting the ILO’s recommended rock-bottom minimum and matching what New Zealanders had from 1974 to 2007, would not make a dent in any province’s economy. It might even provide a very mild stimulus as people used the time to spend money on things that they don’t normally spend money on during the typical work day or weekend. It would be an easy and fairly equitable crowd-pleaser, too.

It was a risk that Kathleen Wynne’s nearly 14-year-old (i.e., geriatric, in political terms) Liberal government could have afforded to take. Instead, they reinforced a penurious status quo, only a little bit more generous than Japan’s legendarily limited allowances — although even Japan has slowly started to come around to the idea of taking holidays in the face of a persistent economic and quality-of-life malaise.

Meanwhile in Canada, the stinginess on annual holiday provisions goes on and on and on.

To attract tourists, a good narrative matters

Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy had a rather fascinating piece in today’s Winnipeg Free Press about the branding of what has been traditionally called the city’s Exchange District as “the Design Quarter”, along with nearby areas of Downtown and The Forks. He wrote:

The world is becoming smaller, travel is becoming easier and globalization is making cities more homogenous. As a result, tourists have begun to look more often for unique stories and authentic, local experiences in non-traditional destinations.

In recognition of this changing trend, last Friday a new initiative was launched to further attract this evolving tourist market as well as provide Winnipeggers with a new experience in their own city.

Design Quarter Winnipeg is an organically organized, grassroots initiative hoping to position downtown Winnipeg’s artistic community as a design and cultural tourism destination.

The idea hopes to bring together local, independent, design-focused events, shops, services and organizations under a single marketing umbrella, empowering them by establishing a broader collaborative network. It’s modelled after existing programs in similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland, where the design district concept has strengthened their civic image as design centres and tapped into new opportunities in the growing trend of cultural tourism.

Indeed, long-haul international travel has never been as affordable to both Canadians and to many foreigners as it is today, or as easy to plan online, offering opportunities for places considered “flyover country” to develop small but lucrative niches.

Tourism is like a library. Just as probably 99 percent of the books in the library are of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the population, so too are 99 percent of places in the world likely of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the world’s population.

But that one percent or even less who are attracted for some reason to that book on the shelf, or that place on the map — that’s what matters. One percent of Canada’s population, for example, is a still-substantial 350,000 people. Not that they’re all going to descend on Winnipeg all at once, or even visit at all. But if the narrative is right, they might consider the possibility.

Which brings me back to the “similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland” noted above.

In recent days, I actually seriously looked at the possibility of taking a trip to Helsinki this summer. Helsinki ticked a lot of the right boxes: the airfare-plus-accommodations price of a visit was competitive; the summer weather isn’t too bad; the seaside setting was appealing; the fact that many Finns speak English would have made communication easy; Finland is a safe country with a strong culture of trust; and Helsinki is considered by some visitors to be an underrated city that could become the next “hot” city to visit for a weekend city-break.

There was also something appealing about visiting a more normal and serene European city like Helsinki, not being in the mood just now for the Disneyland-for-Adults environment that can characterize A-List cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. And I just plain like the Nordic countries, having been to Denmark and Sweden on two previous holidays. They’re not the cheapest places, but the Nordic countries are “Order People” (as opposed to “Chaos People”) cultures who like to keep things running smoothly, and you can afford to relax a bit more.

Helsinki didn’t quite make the cut, however, having decided on cozy Edinburgh instead. There was enough of a narrative there to justify spending two or three days in Helsinki in conjunction with somewhere else; but not enough of a narrative to justify spending a week there.*

Or, when I asked myself, “Why spend a week in Helsinki and not somewhere else?”, I couldn’t answer that question to my complete satisfaction, despite plenty of help from the Visit Helsinki web site and their Twitter feed, both of which are as good as any other tourism agency’s. (If you’re reading this, Visit Helsinki, cheer up: One year’s runner-up is often a future year’s winner.)

If it had been easier to pair Helsinki with somewhere or something else — nearby Tallinn, Estonia is apparently a great city, but suffering from weak air links for visitors from North America — the narrative might have been complete.

So too it might have been if the city offered a wider array of thematic walking tours, which is an area where Helsinki has a weak selection on a walk-up-pay-and-go basis. Cities that don’t have a good offering here are less competitive for the burgeoning solo-tourist market. These are people for whom spending an afternoon walking around town, conversing with fellow Canadians, Australians, Americans, Brits and other nationalities who share their interests, is far more fun than visiting yet another (*yawn*) famous museum.

Winnipeg faces those same challenges as Helsinki in attracting tourists. Tourists will come here if there is a good supporting narrative.

“I’m on a business trip” or “I’m visiting family” are perfectly good narratives that attract many people to this city every year. So too are “I’m 20 years old and I can’t legally drink at home in North Dakota,” or “Winnipeg has a hell of a lot more nightlife than Minot,” or even “Winnipeg is the back-of-beyond from where I live, and I just wanted to see what’s there.” (That, above all else, was what attracted me to the otherwise nice-but-not-spectacular Perth, Western Australia in 2006.)

Some people come from further afield because there are similarly strong narratives supporting their visit. These include, “We can’t do the kind of fishing and hunting we can do in Northern Manitoba back home in Germany,” or “I’ve been cooped up on this train from Toronto for 36 hours; let me off before I lose my goddamn mind!” That last one might be a bit crude, but it’s a fantastic rationale for spending a few hours being a tourist in Winnipeg.

The supporting narrative matters. Give people a convincing answer as to “Why should I spend a [day, weekend, week] in Winnipeg and not in [insert place name here]?” and their odds of actually paying a visit soar. It’s possible that 99 percent or more of the world’s population will never have a good answer to that, no matter what.

But, so what? Like that seemingly untouched book in the library, to someone somewhere, for the most complicated of personal reasons, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. The key is to find that person.

 

* – Indeed, Finland’s main tourist sources seem to be its immediate neighbours including Russia, for whom Finland is an easy weekend getaway; and the Japanese, for whom Helsinki is a logical gateway to other places in Europe thanks to the curvature of the Earth and Finnair’s use of Helsinki as a hub for connecting Europe and Asia. (There might also be some interesting underlying cultural reasons, discussed here, for the Japanese interest in Finland.)

The World’s Best Countries, 2017 Edition: Denmark, Made Great Again

It has been more than two years since the last time I compared countries across four indices — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — in search of the world’s best countries. So, I decided that it was time to do so again to see if anyone has moved up, or down, in the world.

This is particularly timely given that the White House is currently occupied by a bizarre new president who has vowed to “make America great again”. Just what does “great” look like? To be a contender, by my standards, a great country needs to provide its citizens with an exceptional quality of life, an honest form of government and judicial dispute resolution, economic opportunity, and protection from harm. Thus, it should rank highly across all four of the indices noted above.

As I did last time, I converted each country’s raw score in each index — not its rank — into a new score showing the country’s proximity to the best performer in that class. Then, I calculated the average score across the four indices

Last time out, Denmark emerged as the world’s best country, followed closely by Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway. Canada’s average score of 91.6 was good enough for a seventh-place finish, just behind Sweden.

This year, not much has changed. Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand repeat their first-, second- and third-place finishes, with Sweden and (surprise!) Singapore rounding out the top five — even though Singapore performed relatively weakly in the Global Peace Index. Iceland, Norway and Canada tied for sixth place with a score of 91.5, while Finland and the Netherlands round out the top 10 with another tie at 90.1 each.

COUNTRY HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX (2015) CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX (2016) WORLD COMPETITIVENESS SCOREBOARD (2016) GLOBAL PEACE INDEX (2016) AVERAGE
Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 96.7
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 95.4
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 94.1
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 92.5
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 92.0
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 91.5
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 91.5
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 91.5
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 90.1
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 90.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 89.6
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 88.8
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 88.5
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 88.1
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 85.2
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 85.1
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 84.0
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 83.6
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 77.8

What if we calculate each country’s standing a bit differently by looking not at the average, but at the weakest link — the point at which the country deviates the most from the perfect score of 100? In this case, Denmark still remains number-one, with a score of 93.6, followed by New Zealand and Switzerland. Canada, meanwhile, breaks out of its tie with Norway and Iceland for a fourth-place finish.

COUNTRY HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX (2015) CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX (2016) WORLD COMPETITIVENESS SCOREBOARD (2016) GLOBAL PEACE INDEX (2016) “WEAKEST LINK”
Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 93.6
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 87.3
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 87.0
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 85.9
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 83.4
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 82.2
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 81.8
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 81.6
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 81.4
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 81.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 80.2
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 80.0
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 79.5
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 78.0
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 77.7
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 77.4
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 65.2
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 65.1
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 55.3

Improving in one area can help a country improve its performance in all four areas. For example, corruption can take a toll on a people’s well-being, stifle economic growth and spark a desperate struggle for mere survival that can rob a country of its peace. Likewise, improvements in education — a “human development” issue — can reduce tolerance for corruption, open up additional economic opportunities and calm the overall social environment.

Some countries, including Canada, have done a good job in that regard, and have the excellent quality of life to show for it. But for now, the Danes can justifiably pat themselves on the back for a job well done — and grin broadly at how jealous the Swedes, their traditional friendly rivals, will be.