Think of the CMHR not as a destination, but as an add-on

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the "Everything Churchill" web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the “Everything Churchill” web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Since before the building even started to go up, there has been widespread confusion about the role that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) would play in Manitoba’s tourism industry. This was exemplified by a 2013 news release suggesting that the city would “welcome [a] surge of visitors” once the Museum opened — and by the disappointed tone of the news this week that a “measly” and “mere” one percent of visitors last month were international tourists from countries other than the U.S.

In fact, this one percent figure is entirely unsurprising, not least because only one-third as many foreign visitors enter Canada on a typical March day as arrive on a normal day during the July-August peak. Travel Manitoba’s latest annual report shows that non-U.S. international visitors made up one percent of tourists in Manitoba in 2012, so international visitors to the Museum are at the level one would expect.

By flipping through that report, it is not difficult to guess what draws many of those international visitors who, at $772 per person-visit, spent twice as much money here as interprovincial and U.S. visitors, and nearly eight times as much as intra-provincial tourists.

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

As many of the images in the report illustrate, Manitoba’s wilderness is the province’s number-one tourism advantage.

Let’s say you’re Derek and Laura, a fictional couple of empty-nesters in their late fifties from Nottingham, England, who have decided to finally splurge to take a Canadian rail holiday. Or Stefan, a 25-year-old German from Stuttgart, completing his first year of full-time office work and looking to take a holiday with his buddies that will really impress their friends following them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Offhand, Winnipeg is to them what Nottingham and Stuttgart, two cities similar to Winnipeg in size, are to us. Sure, there are some nice things to see and do in each, such as Wollaton Hall and the Robin Hood Town Tour in Nottingham, or Palace Square and the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. But unless you have a compelling reason as a Canadian tourist to go to these places, you’re probably not going to take time away from Europe’s much bigger draws to visit these medium-sized cities.

But if you’re Derek and Laura, taking a wobbly old train into the wild Canadian frontier to see polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights might just sound like the adventure of a lifetime. And for Stefan, being a young avid angler with money to spend, the idea of a week at a middle-of-nowhere fishing lodge angling for northern pike and walleye might sound like a fantastisch idea that could never be replicated in Germany.

And that’s where the CMHR could make sense for international visitors to Manitoba. Naturally, no one will visit Winnipeg just to see a museum any more than anyone would visit London just to see the Imperial War Museum.

But if you happen to be in Winnipeg anyway, it makes sense to go see the CMHR for a mere $15 more. If you’re Derek and Laura, you’ll want to allow the train at least a twelve-hour margin of error on the return trip — this isn’t Europe, where a 15-minute delay is considered “severe” — which might mean having a couple of days in Winnipeg during which to see a few sights.

And for Stefan and his buddies, Winnipeg would be a logical jumping-off point to the North, again allowing for a short stay in the city.

Now might be a good time to mention, however, that while the CMHR might have made it on to TripAdvisor’s list of Winnipeg attractions (at #19 as of April 28), the Museum gets no top-level mention on Frommer’s listing of Winnipeg attractions, and is similarly obscure on Virtual Tourist’s site. And as far as Fodor’s is concerned, Winnipeg doesn’t even exist. With the summer high season rapidly approaching, the marketers might want to get on the case, pronto.

Will barriers minimize CMHR’s impact on downtown Winnipeg?

Will the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in the next year, or two, or three, transform Winnipeg into Canada’s Bilbao — that is, a once-gritty city turned into a sudden hot destination for tourists from all over?

This blog has been skeptical of such grand claims. High-profile museum openings didn’t do much to stir up tourist trade in Helsinki, Finland, much less in Sheffield, England; though the early numbers are still good for the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland — handily timed to open 100 years after the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic to take advantage of peak public interest.

The skepticism, for the time being, still stands. Winnipeg, simply, is not Bilbao. The elements that make Bilbao a star attraction — not just the famous Guggenheim Bilbao museum, but also a picturesque old town and fame among foodies for having some of the best food in Europe — aren’t present here.

Nor are the ultra-low-cost carriers, or the call of the exotic, that make it as easy and as common for a German to fly down to Spain for the long weekend as it is for a Winnipegger to drive down to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Not to mention that there’s plenty of competition to be “the next Bilbao”. Holon, Israel wants that distinction. So does Lens, France, an industrial town 176 kilometres (109 miles) north of Paris. Hobart, Tasmania wants to be the next Bilbao, too — and has a rather picturesque setting to boot, unlike East Lansing, Michigan.

But let’s assume that this blog is wrong, and tourists do flock in to suddenly exotic Winnipeg to see the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights after it opens. Will the crowds have much of an effect on downtown?

It is, for the most part, unlikely.

Consider the site of the museum. Like the Forks, it will be physically and psychologically isolated from downtown by the CN Rail tracks, Union Station and Main St. On the east and south sides, the Red and Assinboine Rivers provide natural buffer zones between the museum and the rest of the city.

These barriers mean that the museum — again, like the Forks — will have a strongly directional push/pull effect on foot traffic. The yellow boundary below shows the areas within a 10-minute walk of the museum site, where foot traffic would be expected to be heaviest. This traffic would flow most naturally to and from the east end of Broadway, the western edge of Provencher, the Forks to the southeast, and with relatively little resistance, to and from the neighbouring ballpark and the less interesting area to the northwest.

In other areas, the 10-minute walking distance barely extends much to the west of Main Street.

CMHR Walking Times

Approximate walking times from the CMHR: 10 mins. (yellow), 15 mins. (blue) and 20 mins. (red)

The 15-minute walking distance, in blue, shows the same directional effect, with the strongest push-pull being along the Broadway/Provencher and Main/Queen Elizabeth Way corridors. By the time one reaches the blue boundaries, foot traffic to and from the museum will have largely dispersed.

The 20-minute walking distance, in red, is again strongly directional. At this boundary — a longish walk from the museum — foot traffic will be too thin to have much effect at all. Notable places out on this fringe or beyond includes the convention centre, Cityplace, Portage Place and The Bay.

In short, there’s a good chance of spin-off benefits at the Forks, along the south end of Main Street, at the corner of Provencher and Tache, and perhaps up toward the Fairmont — if the crowds materialize. Other areas should expect a more modest impact owing to their longer walking distances from the museum.

Recreating the “Bilbao Effect” easier said than done. Just ask Helsinki and Sheffield.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao © Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) “will be Canada’s fifth national museum and the first to be built outside of Ottawa,” an article in the Spring 2011 edition of Downtown Winnipeg magazine noted.

“Conservative estimates suggest more than 250,000 people will come to Winnipeg each year to visit the museum providing an economic benefit of more than $25 million.”

“Once the museum is complete, the structure will rival that of the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim or the Eiffel Tower,” the article quoted museum CEO Stuart Murray as saying.

It would certainly be a boon to the city’s tourism industry if those goals were to be met.

From the beginning, there have been hopes that the CMHR would pay for itself by creating a “Bilbao Effect” in the city, a phenomena named after the working-class Spanish city which suddenly became a major tourist destination after the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened to the public in 1997.

A 2007 report noted that the Guggenheim attracts an average of about 800,000 non-Basque visitors per year to Bilbao, the leading city of Spain’s northern Basque Country region, “possibly a world record for any third- or fourth-tier city”.

Can it be done in Winnipeg? There are some major challenges to be overcome.

The first will be to avoid having the “Bilbao Effect” turn into the “Sheffield Syndrome”.

Like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, England was to be a custom-designed iconic building drawing visitors from all over the British Isles and continental Europe when it opened in 1999.

Sheffield is, in some respects, similar to Winnipeg: an inland city about 270 kilometres north of London with a metro area population of 641,000.

The Centre opened with the expectation that 400,000 visitors per year would walk in off the street. That might have seemed like a reasonable estimate at the time, with 5 million people living within a 100-kilometre radius of Sheffield.

It soon became obvious that those projections were wildly optimistic. By its first anniversary, the National Centre for Popular Music had only drawn 150,000 visitors, plunging the Centre into a financial crisis.

There would be no second anniversary. The National Centre for Popular Music closed in June 2000, after only 15 months in operation.

Why did visitors flock to Bilbao and not to Sheffield?

Poor reviews were certainly one reason. “At Sheffield, instead of sex, drugs and dodgy business deals, we get neat videos depicting the history of dance from jive and jitterbug through the twist,” The Guardian‘s Jonathan Glancey wrote. “Nicely made, but soulless.”

Nicholas Barber of The Independent was blunter: “The fact that it offers you the chance to edit a Phil Collins live video only confirms my worst suspicion: this millennial celebration of popular music is stuck in the 1980s.”

Another probable reason, pithily summed up by British Conservative MP Michael Fabricant: “Sheffield is not sexy. It is old and dirty.”

The idea of a trip to Spain for the long weekend, however, just oozes sexiness.

Discount carriers offer London-Bilbao round trips — about 600 miles each way — for $200 to $300 Cdn., including taxes, fees, insurance and luggage charges.

Spain is also sunny and warm, and Bilbao itself is well-regarded for its architecture and gastronomy.

Climate can be a tremendous asset, or liability, as discovered by a research project which sought to understand why relatively few Europeans travel to Finland.

The research found that Finland suffered from a reputation as being a cold, summer-only destination with nothing particularly interesting, attractive or special to see. (Similar comments were made about Winnipeg in a 2008 focus group report prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage.)

This contributed to problems faced by Helsinki’s architecturally stunning Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, a must-see if you actually make it to Helsinki.

Kiasma drew about 300,000 visitors through its doors annually when it first opened in the late ’90s, only to see numbers drop precipitously once the novelty wore off.

In 2009, only 174,000 visitors visited the Kiasma, partly due to the termination of a weekly “free admission day” program in order to address the museum’s revenue problems. This followed a 2008 study which concluded that only 30 percent of tourists even visited Kiasma while in Helsinki, despite a moderate admission rate for adults (10 Euro/$14 Cdn.) and free admission for minors.

This should raise questions about the ability of a museum to act as a powerful tourism generator in the absence of a wide variety of other activities or an exotic setting.

Another challenge for the CMHR will be to attract repeat visitors.

Repeat visitors will be important for the Museum because of Manitoba’s reliance on internal tourism. In 2008, 83 percent of all tourists in Manitoba were fellow Manitobans according to Travel Manitoba. Ten percent were from other parts of Canada, six percent were from the U.S., and one percent were from other countries.

The most likely possibility is that there will be some more tourism from other parts of Canada after the CMHR opens, as the museum and an expanded Convention Centre make the city more competitive as a convention destination.

While the CMHR will add significantly to the overall assortment of things to see and do in Winnipeg, it will likely only lead to a small rise at best in the number of Canadian or U.S. vacationers destined for Winnipeg, largely in the form of people visiting friends and family, small-towners coming in for a weekend in the city, and people passing through.

For more distant Canadians and Americans without ties to Winnipeg, a three-day holiday is uneconomical at round-trip airfares of $300-$700 per person and $100-$200 per night in accommodation costs, and a week-long holiday requires some careful planning in order to avoid running low on unique things to do, especially if you’re not into rural or wilderness tourism.

International visitors will likely continue to make up about one percent of tourists in Manitoba due to Winnipeg’s distance from the country’s main international gateways in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can overcome these challenges and succeed — and I hope they do — Winnipeg will be a much better place for it.

But replicating Bilbao’s rapid ascendancy as a “hot” tourist destination is easier said than done. Just ask Sheffield and Helsinki.

H/T: Winnipeg, Bilbao and Valencia (Anybody Want a Peanut?, Jan. 10, 2011)