Those Danish tourists, and why ultra-cheap airfares don’t work in Canada

Aug. 10, 2014 screenshot showing promotional deals advertised on EasyJet's web site. (Click for source.)

Aug. 10, 2014 screenshot showing promotional deals advertised on EasyJet’s web site. (Click for source.)

“My girlfriend and I (Danish) were tourists in your country for 5 weeks this summer. We had the most incredible adventure and met the most wonderful Canadians, who welcomed us warmly into their homes,” wrote Holly Chabowski, a U.K.-born Danish visitor, recently in “an open letter to the people who hold power and responsibility in Canada,” which was subsequently published in the Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere.

So far, so good. But there was more.

“Before arriving in Canada we had a genuine impression of a clean, healthy and sustainable first world country. Upon arrival in Toronto we were horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12 lane high ways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going no where,” Chabowski continued.

“A greater shock came when we discovered that this kind of infrastructure is not reserved just for the sprawl surrounding towns and cities but that highways actually run through city centres too. As humans trying to enjoy Canada’s major cities (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Halifax) we were treated like second class citizens compared to cars. The air was dirty, and the constant noise from horns and engines was unpleasant.”

Oh boy. Imagine if they came to the Prairies!

To no one’s surprise, Chabowski’s comments stirred Canadians up.

“We live in a culture that looks at cars as a means to get around. I’m sorry that bothers you. We could do better, absolutely. But acting so disappointed about it… well, that smacks of a certain degree of arrogance…”, wrote one commentator on the Ottawa Citizen web site.

“Instead of getting so defensive maybe we should start pushing our city to build infrastructure that supports walking and biking,” wrote a more sympathetic reader.

Yet, in addition to stirring people up, Chabowski might have inadvertently answered a question that has long bothered Canadians: why — in addition to the taxes and add-on fees — are the cheap airfares that Europeans enjoy so rarely found in Canada?

Part of the answer can be found in the differences between European and North American cities.

European cities are not just walkable, but wanderable. Whether you are in a larger, cosmopolitan city like London, or a smaller, more provincial one like Copenhagen, one can easily kill a couple of hours of spare time wandering aimlessly, following one’s nose and seeing what’s around the next corner, without getting bored.

Try doing that in many North American cities, aside from a few exceptions like New York City, Chicago, Montreal or San Francisco. It won’t be easy.

Because European cities take much of the effort out of having fun — one can just show up and have an enjoyable time without much advance planning — it is easy to stimulate consumer demand for travel.

That is exactly what European discount carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair have done, knowing that European cities are so visitor-friendly that many people will jump at the opportunity to pack a small bag and head off from Amsterdam to Rome for a three-day weekend for 193 Euros ($284 Cdn.), taxes and mandatory surcharges included.*

It’s an economic concept called price elasticity of demand. Because they are so wanderable, cutting the price of visiting European cities strongly increases the number of people willing to pay to do so. (It doesn’t hurt that passport ownership is high and that Europeans — like Australians, another travel-loving lot — have four weeks annual holiday by law to play with.)

Apart from the exceptions already noted, North American cities are largely dull and even unsafe places to aimlessly wander. As noted by our Danish guests, many cities are essentially car-dependent central business districts surrounded by miles of single-use industrial or residential neighbourhoods, as dull and featureless as the prairie or the desert.

North American cities are clones of every other city of similar size within several hundred miles’ distance — and they require any tourist intrepid enough to end up there to put a lot of work into being a tourist. Without places to wander and explore, visitors have to put infinitely more effort into figuring out what to do with their days.

Thus, there is little point in offering EasyJet-style airfares between many cities in North America. Even if you could take a $284 weekend round-trip from Winnipeg to St. Louis, from Halifax to Hamilton, or from Calgary to Salt Lake City — all distances comparable to the Amsterdam-Rome trip noted earlier — why would you?

Hence it makes much more sense for the airlines to carefully keep supply in line with demand, knowing that just about anyone traveling between those North American cities must have a compelling reason to want to do so, and that they will therefore quite willingly pay the $600 Cdn. fares currently listed for Aug. 29-Sept. 1 roundtrips.

Lowering those prices would mean charging people less than they are willing to pay for that trip, while attracting few (if any) new customers.

If places like Winnipeg, St. Louis, Hamilton, Calgary (outside of Stampede Season) or Salt Lake City were easily wandered, fun-with-no-advance-planning-required cities to visit, then it would make more sense to offer much lower fares to appeal to peoples’ sense of fun and adventure.

Alas, there is little we can do about the layout of our cities in the short term, and will have to accept our cities’ weak tourist appeal as a fact of life. But at least we will now know why we can’t jet off to our continent’s many other cities at the same relatively low fares and with the same adventurous spirit as our European friends do.


* – Based on fare shown on EasyJet’s web site on the afternoon of Sun., Aug. 10, departing Amsterdam for Rome on the evening of Friday, Aug. 29 and returning on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 1.

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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