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

Earlier today, The Economist declared Somalia the unfortunate winner of the British newsmagazine’s ultimate booby prize — The Worst Country on Earth. Previous winners Afghanistan and Turkmenistan would undoubtedly have been relieved to be rid of the title if they weren’t preoccupied with all their other problems.

At the same time, The Economist’s writers put out a challenge to readers to nominate the best country on Earth.

Naturally, I’d be inclined to nominate Canada — but I decided instead to open up a spreadsheet and do a quick calculation of where the 20 highest ranking nations in the latest United Nations Human Development Index stood in three other widely consulted indicators of good government: Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Switzerland-based Institute for Management Development’s World Competitiveness Scoreboard and Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index.

There are three things I should note here. First, I was forced to drop Iceland and Liechtenstein because of incomplete information. Second, in the Human Development Index rankings, I treated two countries with the same raw score as being tied, which is something the Wikipedia article does not do. Third, countries that did not finish in the Human Development Index Top 20 were excluded as not meeting a vital minimum standard for being considered as one of the world’s 10 best-run countries.

I calculated each country’s average ranking across the four indexes. Wherever there was a tie, I used each country’s worst score — its weakest link — as the tie-breaker. As the countries were ranked from best to worst, the closer a country’s average ranking came to ‘1’, the better.

Keep in mind that this is just for fun, and something I had no intention of working all night on — other people might have other methodologies and criticisms of this one.

Without any further ado, here is a countdown of the world’s ten best-run countries.


#10 -- Luxembourg, average rank 11.5 (Copyright © Albert Nagy; from Panoramio)

The Netherlands

#9 -- The Netherlands; average rank 11.0 (Copyright © yo-rafael; from Panoramio)

New Zealand

#8 -- New Zealand; average rank 9.25 (Copyright © funtor; from Panoramio)


#7 -- Australia, average rank 9.0 (Copyright © Daniel Meyer; from Panoramio)


#6 -- Switzerland, average rank 9.0 (Copyright © wx; from Panoramio)


#5 -- Finland, average rank 9.0 (Copyright © picsonthemove; from Panoramio)


#4 -- Canada (yay!), average rank 7.0 (Copyright © Lukas Novak; from Panoramio)


#3 -- Norway, average rank 6.25 (Copyright © Matthew Walters; from Panoramio)


#2 -- Denmark, average rank 5.75 (Copyright © KWO Tsoumenis; from Panoramio)

And now the grand prize winner as the world’s best-run country:


#1 -- Sweden, average rank 5.5 (Copyright © Adam Salwanowicz; from Panoramio)

The others:

11. Japan (12.5)
12. Ireland (12.5)
13. Austria (12.75)
14. Belgium (18.75)
15. France (22.5)
16. Spain (28.25)
17. United States (29.00)
18. Italy (41.75)