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.)


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)