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.)

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Who’s more likely to visit Canada in the summertime?

It’s early August, and that means that Canada’s tourism industry is in full swing, with not just many Canadians being on holiday, but many foreign visitors arriving as well. The single largest source of foreign visitors might not surprise you: in July and August 2015, 3,954,528 American visitors entered Canada by car, aircraft, train or ship according to Statistics Canada, more than 10 times the number of British (218,438), French (159,063), Chinese (158,496) or Australian high-season visitors (79,206).

But it might be surprising to learn that, on a per capita basis, the United States ranks fifth in terms of its citizens’ propensity to visit Canada during the summer high season, with 12.4 visitors to Canada per 1,000 U.S. residents. Residents of the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just off the coast of Newfoundland, made 672.9 visits to Canada per 1,000 residents, a not-so-surprising figure given the territory’s isolation. The other three among the top five were current or former British colonies linked to Canada by proximity and migration: Bermuda (73.1 visits per 1,000 residents), the Cayman Islands (32.7) and the Barbados (13.2).

Foreigners entering Canada in July and August 2015, per 1,000 home country residents. Top 25 countries on a per-capita basis; countries with fewer than 1,000 visitors to Canada excluded. Visitor information source: Statistics Canada CANSIM tables 427-0003 (non-U.S.), 427-0004 (U.S.) (Click to enlarge)

Foreigners entering Canada in July and August 2015, per 1,000 home country residents. Top 25 countries on a per-capita basis; countries with fewer than 1,000 visitors to Canada excluded. Visitor information source: Statistics Canada CANSIM tables 427-0003 (non-U.S.), 427-0004 (U.S.) (Click to enlarge)

Of the long-haul markets, Hong Kong residents and the Swiss (5.6 and 5.3, respectively) showed the strongest interest in visiting Canada in the summer of 2015. Hong Kong residents were most likely motivated by personal ties to Canada, given that the severely undervalued Hong Kong dollar would make Canada seem unusually expensive (while making Hong Kong better value for Canadians heading over there). For the Swiss, however, the drastically overvalued Swiss Franc makes the rest of the world a bargain, Canada included.

If distance, exchange rates and migration patterns all shape foreigners’ willingness to visit Canada, so too it seems does language. Making more than three visits per 1,000 residents, the New Zealanders, British, Australians and Irish show a greater propensity to visit Canada than do residents of, say, most European countries — even the economically healthy Nordic ones — with the exception of the Icelanders, the well-off Luxembourgeois and the aforementioned Swiss.

A quick guide to Stockholm

My first encounter with a born-and-raised Stockholmer, while on a walking tour of Potsdam, Germany in 2012, wouldn’t have initially led me to choose his hometown, which he described as “boring”, as a travel destination. But after hearing great things over the intervening years about the city from non-Stockholmers such as Pedro and Jesse T., and seeing it ranked competitively on VirtualTourist’s listing of most-popular European cities, I was sold.

One evening in May, after careful deliberation about where and when I would go on my annual urban holiday, and mentally asking myself “Are you sure?” one last time and self-answering in the affirmative, I clicked a “Submit” button on Lufthansa’s web site. That was it: I would be off to Stockholm in mid-July.

Now back in Winnipeg, I have no regrets.

Contrary to the Stockholmer’s advice three years ago, what I found was a city that was far from boring. Not as sexy or dramatic as London, Paris or Berlin perhaps, but a pleasant and lively city where I found enough to do to pass seven days without much effort; a city in which the nearby kebab shop is still doing brisk business after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and in which I could go in search of something fun or interesting to do at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and find it easily. (If that Stockholmer I met thought a city where you could do that was “boring”, God knows how he would have described the vast majority of North American cities. “Comatose”, perhaps?)

Q & A — Stockholm, Sweden

Q. Why Stockholm?

A. Stockholm is a good choice for those who have already seen some of the grand cities of Europe, such as London, Paris and Berlin, and are now looking for a city that has many of the best things about European urban life — the cafe culture, the history, the nightlife — without being a Disneyland for Adults. In other words, someplace interesting enough to be a bit touristy, but not completely and grotesquely overrun by tourists.

Q. What are the best things to see and do in Stockholm?

A. Different people will have different interests, of course. For the most memorable Stockholm experiences, I would recommend:

a.) Check out the Vasa. The Vasa Museum basically has just one exhibit: the ship by that name which sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It had the good fortune to sink in the harbour’s brackish waters, which meant that this elaborately designed wooden ship was in unusually good condition when the Swedes raised it from the sea bed in the ’60s and put back together to become a museum piece. It’s a rare opportunity to see an original 17th century ship up close, and the story of ego and incompetence that led the giant ship (by 1628 standards) to literally flop over on its side just 1.3 kilometres into what was supposed to be a journey to Poland is an entertaining one.

b.) Take each of Free Tour Stockholm‘s three urban walking tours. One covers Norrmalm, the island on which the modern city centre is located. The second covers Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” neighbourhood (and the one area which is “overrun by tourists”). The third covers Södermalm, which was considered Stockholm’s shabbiest neighbourhood 20 years ago, but which is now known as a “hipster haven”. The guides work for tips (from what I’ve seen, 50 to 100 Swedish krona, or $7.50 to $15 Cdn., seems typical) and each tour takes about 90 minutes. A great way to learn more about Stockholm and its history, and to meet travelers from all over the world.

c.) Take a fika break. In fact, take all the fika breaks you want. Taking some time to relax and enjoy a coffee and pastry while reading a book or watching the world go by, an experience known as fika, a casual term for coffee, is a beloved part of Swedish culture. In Stockholm, you’re rarely far from an independent cafe or even a franchise outlet such as Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee, which sell quality coffee and pastries. (Their offerings make Starbucks, which has an unusually weak presence in Stockholm, look third-rate by comparison.) Budget a rather steep 60 to 80 krona ($9 to $12 Cdn.) for the experience, which is worth it.

Keep in mind that space is at a premium in Europe’s densely populated cities; thus you might be expected to sit in very close proximity to strangers during peak times, and will not be allowed the vast personal space that North Americans are used to. Respecting others’ privacy (more on that later) is important here.

(Cautionary note: Be careful about using the term “fika” around Germans, as the pronunciation is very close to that of “ficken”, their slang term for sexual intercourse.)

d.) Enjoy the city’s parks. Kungsträdgården, a fairly small park in the city centre, is a popular place to hang out and people-watch, and frequently hosts free concerts, festivals and other events. The much larger Djurgården, south and east of the city centre, is akin to Assiniboine Park with harbour views.

e.) Learn how those Scandinavians got to be so on-the-ball about everything. Those wanting to learn more about how Sweden has become synonymous with the sane, ethical, earnestly responsible government that is becoming an endangered species in North America might be interested in taking in a tour of City Hall and of the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament.

f.) Enjoy the nightlife. If you’re into nightclubbing, Stockholm has its fair share of clubs filled with people who could pass for fashion models. But if that’s not your thing, no problem. During a summer evening, there’s a good chance something will be going on at Kungsträdgården, or that Drottninggatan, the pedestrian mall that serves as Stockholm’s main retail street, will be full of people and buskers. Outside the old PUB department store on Drottninggatan, one could spend half an hour or more many evenings relaxing and watching Mareks Radzēvičs, a Latvian musician, play the cello. If you have a few krona to spare, toss it into his cello case. Continue south on Drottninggatan toward the Riksdag and the Old Town, where there will be plenty more activity.

g.) Go for a sauna. It’s a Nordic tradition, it’s very relaxing, and many Swedish hotels offer them. In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has never really caught on in Canada, given our similar climate. And since part of traveling is experiencing things you wouldn’t experience in your home town, don’t freak out if the sauna is mixed-gender-nude — just mind the etiquette rules that you’ll be expected to adhere to.

If you’re an ABBA fan, by all means check out the ABBA Museum. I avoided this one after being warned by an Australian expat living in Sweden that he was ready to puncture his eardrums after two hours.

Skansen, a historical park depicting how Swedes lived in the olden days, is apparently hugely popular among those who can tolerate large numbers of families with children.

Q. When is the best time to go?

A. Summer. Stockholm sits slightly above 59° North latitude, making it one of the most northerly large cities in the world. In fact, it’s further north than Churchill. At this latitude, the summer days are even longer than they are in Winnipeg, while the winter days are even shorter and darker. Hence, Stockholmers make the best of their summers, which are cloudier than they are in Winnipeg, but generally mild.

Hotel prices tend to be a bit better in the summer, too, as there are fewer business travelers around and there is more competition for price-sensitive holiday travelers.

Q. What is the weather like?

A. As noted, summer days are mild: typically with highs in the low to mid-twenties Celsius during the day, and lows in the low to mid-teens at night. It rains periodically, but not too heavily or frequently.

Q. Are things really expensive there?

A. Stockholm is one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there are ways to mitigate the costs. Find a hotel with a complimentary or affordable buffet breakfast (the ubiquitous, Swedish-based Scandic hotel chain is a safe bet), and eat breakfast like a king so that all you will need is a modest lunch later on. Go for a proper meal later in the day, at a price which is about 25 to 50 percent higher than Winnipeg levels; avoid progressively snacking throughout the day (outside of fika breaks), as the markup over standard Winnipeg prices is higher, and could end up costing as much as a single restaurant meal.

Also be price-aware about buying alcohol or taking taxis, as the prices are typically at least 50 percent greater than Winnipeg prices. See Numbeo.com’s Cost of Living Comparison for more information.

Q. I heard that the taxes are high? Is that true?

A. If you had a hissy fit over the Manitoba Provincial Sales Tax increase, you’ll go into shock over Swedish sales tax, which is 25 percent on many goods. Don’t feel too bad for the Swedes, though, as they do get their money’s worth: car ownership in Stockholm is largely optional even for families with children due to the city’s walkability and the country’s excellent public transportation network, qualified post-secondary students pay no tuition, and the country is ranked near the top in everything from economic competitiveness to freedom from corruption to peacefulness.

But — it is possible for you as a Canadian to get a sales tax refund on purchases that you are taking back to Canada with you, as long as you are carrying them in your carry-on baggage. I’ve never applied for this rebate because: a.) It’s a bit of a hassle, and requires you to have sufficient time at whichever airport you’re exiting the Schengen “border-free Europe” zone at, and, b.) I’m getting a benefit from the safe streets and excellent infrastructure that European cities provide, so it’s not like I’m paying but getting nothing. But if you’ve got a bit of extra airport time and some space in your carry-ons for your purchases, go for it.

Note that in Sweden, sales taxes are included in advertised prices. The price you see is the price you pay.

Q. What is the best way to get there?

A. Since there are no direct flights between Canada and Sweden, you will need to travel via a third country. I would recommend taking Lufthansa’s overnight Toronto-Munich flight, and then making a quick one-hour connection to their mid-morning Munich-Stockholm flight. This is for four reasons:

a.) It gets you into Stockholm earlier, and thus less exhausted, than almost any other option;

b.) Munich is one of Europe’s best airports for making a connection at. I was able to disembark my flight from Canada, clear Immigration, go through airport security, and then walk at a relaxed pace to the departure gate for the flight to Stockholm in 29 minutes flat;

c.) In the unlikely event that you do miss your connection, the next non-stop flight is only about three hours later and would still get you into Stockholm by mid-afternoon;

d.) Lufthansa is a good, reliable airline. I will candidly admit that getting an unexpected and unexplained free upgrade to Business Class on the flight back to Canada makes me a big Lufthansa fan; but I’ve also spot-checked their on-time performance on Flightradar24.com, and estimated that only about five percent of Lufthansa flights arrive more than 30 minutes late — as good as it gets in the business, and a good indication of a company that has its act together.

Alternately, KLM’s Amsterdam hub and SAS’s Copenhagen hub, the latter served by SAS’s Canadian partner Air Canada, should be among the better airports to make connections at. Avoid tight connections at the sprawling Frankfurt-Main, and avoid all connections at much-despised airports such as Chicago O’Hare, any New York City-area airport, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Q. Is Sweden part of the “border-free Europe”?

A. Yes, Sweden is part of the Schengen Area, in which people are allowed to move around — even to take up residence in a different country — with minimal hassle. For example, some people live in Sweden but work in Denmark, commuting daily across a bridge that connects the two countries, often without having to even report to a customs officer.

What does that mean for you as a Canadian? You will need to clear Immigration (a.k.a., Passport Control) at the first Schengen Area country that you arrive in; most likely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Since Canadian tourists are generally considered low-risk, it is unlikely that you will be asked more than just the basic questions: the purpose of your visit, how long you intend to stay for, where you plan to visit, etc. Unlike Canada and the U.K., which is not a Schengen country, most if not all Schengen countries do not require you to fill out a paper arrival card or customs declaration before landing.

If you connect through London Heathrow, you should not need to go through British immigration formalities as long as you stay within the secured International areas of the airport. This is easiest if both your inbound and outbound flights arrive and depart from the Star Alliance’s Terminal 2 or British Airways’ Terminal 5.

Even if you are arriving from another Schengen country, you will need to clear Customs on arrival in Sweden. This is a less bureaucratic and less interrogative experience than it is in Canada and the U.S. Like much of Europe, Sweden uses a Green Channel/Red Channel system: walk out of the baggage claim area through the Green Channel exit if you have nothing to declare, or walk into the Red Channel area and speak to a customs officer if you do. (On my arrival in Stockholm, a couple of uniformed officers stood off to the side scanning the crowd. The Green Channel exit was unstaffed, which is not unusual at European airports. Arriving passengers can be spot-checked, however, so don’t try sneaking things through.)

Q. Does Sweden use the Euro as its currency?

A. No, Sweden continues to use its traditional currency, the Krona (shorthand: SEK). One Swedish krona is equal to about 15 cents Cdn. Therefore, $100 Cdn. is equal to about 667 SEK, and 100 SEK is equal to about $15 Cdn.

Q. How much cash should I get?

A. At least 50 percent more than you would go through in Canada during the same period of time. For example, if your cash spending in Canada is about $80 per week, get at least $120 Cdn. worth of Swedish krona, or 800 SEK, before departure or just after arrival.

If you prefer to use plastic, Sweden is a credit/debit card-friendly country, provided that you have a chip card and a four-digit PIN. (Longer or shorter PINs might be problematic.)

Q. What is the best way to get into the city from the airport?

A. Flygbussarna‘s coaches offer the best combination of price and convenience. Coaches to and from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 45 kilometres by road north of the city centre, run every 10 minutes during much of the day for $30 Cdn. per person round-trip. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Tickets can be purchased online before leaving Canada.

Commuter trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s central railway station. How much you will pay depends on whether you buy a single-trip ticket or a multi-day travelcard: a one-way ticket into town costs $20.25 Cdn. per person, while a seven-day travelcard, valid for bus, metro, tram and train travel throughout the Stockholm area with airport privileges, should cost a total of about $73.50 if my calculations are correct. This is an option if you are travelling light — commuter trains might be crowded — and intend to use public transportation frequently during your stay.

Arlanda Express runs swanky, high-speed trains that cover the 45 kilometres between the airport and the city centre in just 20 minutes. But they run at 15-minute intervals, slightly less often than the slower Flygbussarna coaches, and are vastly more expensive at $79.50 Cdn. per person round-trip. Not really worth it unless you want to take a high-speed train just for kicks.

Taxis between the airport and the city cost about $75 Cdn. each way: worthwhile for a family, but couples and solo travelers will get better value by taking a coach if they’re staying at a hotel within the city centre. (Or try your luck with Uber.)

Q. Where would be a good place to stay?

A. In or near Norrmalm is your best bet. This will put you within walking distance of much of what the city has to offer, and close to Central Station and metro and tram stops for trips further afield.

Staying in the centre of the city, even if it’s more expensive than staying in a suburb, has two advantages. First, you can drop off any purchases you make during the day, or run back quickly to pick up or drop off a rain jacket or umbrella. Second, you can more easily return to use the toilet, bearing in mind that public toilets in Europe are not always as easy to find and sometimes are pay-to-use. (Even in the expensive NK department store, it costs 10 SEK, or $1.50 Cdn., to use the restrooms.)

Q. Is it safe in Stockholm?

A. Yes, quite safe, though some would recommend being cautious around metro stations, streets outside of pubs, and the Sergels Torg sunken plaza at night. There are only about 90 homicides per year in the entire nation of Sweden out of a population of 9.5 million; this would be roughly equivalent to Winnipeg experiencing just 6-7 homicides per year.

Visitors’ primary concern should be in not making themselves easy targets for pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Take only what you need for the day with you, and leave the rest in your hotel room safe; and familiarize yourself with these anti-theft tips from Frommer’s and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police.

Don’t bother with the strange new trend of wearing your backpack on your belly instead of on your back. It looks ridiculous; it automatically flags you as a tourist who is likely carrying more valuables around than the typical local person and who won’t be in town long enough to see justice carried out; and if you have your passport and your credit and debit cards all in one backpack, you’ll be royally screwed if a thief does get ahold of it. (For that second reason — not flagging yourself as a tourist — I recommend not sporting a Canadian flag while traveling. Or wearing white sneakers, which is apparently another give-away that someone is a North American.)

Q. What is the best way to eat affordably in Stockholm?

A. Stockholm’s Middle Eastern eateries offer meat and vegetables in good portions for moderate prices. A hearty Shish Tawouk plate at the STHLM Bistro in central Stockholm costs only 99 SEK ($15 Cdn.), and the city’s various kebab places offer similar value.

Unlike Canada, advertised Swedish prices include sales taxes, so the price you see is the price you pay. As restaurant servers in Sweden are relatively well-compensated compared to their Canadian counterparts, tips are normally limited to rounding the bill up to the nearest multiple of 10 or 20 Swedish krona ($1.50 to $3.00 Cdn.), which usually works out to five or 10 percent. A Canadian-style 15 percent tip would be a bit extravagant, akin to giving a Canadian server a 30 percent tip.

Avoid restaurants in Gamla Stan, the touristy old-town area, which are less reliant on repeat business than restaurants elsewhere in the city and therefore have less of a vested interest in your being satisfied. Instead, eat where the Stockholmers eat, which is basically in any other part of the city.

Q. Should I rent a car?

A. No, unless you’re planning to travel out into rural areas poorly served by Sweden’s excellent public transport system. Stockholm is by no means a “car town”, which is a good thing as a car town is a dull town. Parking for one hour on a weekday afternoon in central Stockholm typically costs $9 to $13.50 Cdn., vehicles entering the city are subject to congestion charges of up to $9 Cdn. per vehicle per day, and Stockholm gas prices are currently about $2.15 Cdn. per litre. And for all that expense, driving won’t save you much time: a trip from Central Station to the hip Södermalm area, for instance, takes 10-20 minutes both by car and by Metro.

In fact, while in Stockholm, you might notice that a fair bit of freedom can be gained by not driving. As a pedestrian or public transport user, you’ll be free to have a drink or two even on an empty stomach without worry, you can wander more because you won’t be tethered by the need to stay close to where you parked your vehicle, and going out on the town will be less expensive and involve less effort.

Q. Do people speak English there?

A. Approximately 86 percent of Swedes are able to speak English well enough to carry on a conversation, and many will quickly switch to English if they detect that you are not a Swede. It is a second language, though, so don’t assume that they know jargon or nuances that most Canadians would know: keep your English simple and direct.

As always when traveling in a foreign country, it is considered good form to know and to use basic niceties such as hello (hej), please and thank you (tack in both instances) and pardon me (ursäkta mig). Hej is pronounced identically to the English word hey, tack is pronounced the same way as the English word by the same spelling, and ursäkta mig is pronounced ur-shack-ta mye.

Q. Are the people friendly?

A. Stockholmers can seem rather aloof by Winnipeg standards, but also calmer and more polite. As in the other Nordic countries, respect for others’ privacy is both offered and expected, and asking questions that cross that privacy threshold — even questions we take for granted such as “What did you do this weekend?” — might be seen as impolite in their view.

This can have its benefits however. For example, in a Swedish restaurant, servers will not hang around your table, and might not even approach unless they see some indication that you wish to speak to them or that you’ve finished the meal. While this might be considered poor service in Canada, it is considered good service in Sweden, as the server is making a point of respecting your privacy.

But once again, Swedes are remarkably polite and civil, and you can count on being treated courteously wherever you go.

Q. How do they feel about Canadians?

A. Swedes aren’t the type to offer unsolicited opinions to strangers, so it’s not readily apparent. My best guess is that it’s probably a benignly neutral view, possibly leaning positive — but that they don’t really give us much more thought than we give them.

Q. Do people really dress up nicely in Stockholm?

A. They tend to be conservative-casual dressers: well-fitting, unostentatious, neutral or moderately coloured clothes are fashionable; excessively baggy or flashy clothes are not. Jeans and t-shirts are fine as long as they meet this criteria. Leave the sweat pants at home, as you would probably be considered an oddball for wearing such clothing in public in Stockholm, and in much of the world outside of North America for that matter.

Stockholm in Images

Twenty years ago, Södermalm was the last place one would go as a tourist in Stockholm. Today, it’s a must-see neighbourhood due to its historic character and its status as a “hipster haven”.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood, can be annoyingly touristy — but also beautiful.

Central Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park is the site of many free events, and a fine place for people watching.

Head down to Hotorget Plaza in Stockholm’s Norrmalm area on Sundays to experience a genuine European market.

I wonder what kind of reaction the owner would get driving that middle van around Winnipeg?

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjJmtw0i9-U%5D

Further reading:

The Canadian government’s travel information page for Sweden

Kwintessential’s guide to Swedish etiquette

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.

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.

Time to make Winnipeg’s walking tours more visitor-friendly

Winnipeg might not be known for being one of North America’s leading or even Top 50 mass-market holiday destinations, but this city does attract some tourism nevertheless through several narrow but lucrative feeds:

Business and convention traffic: Though busy during the day, many of these visitors are looking for something to do after 6 p.m. rather than spending the evening watching TV in their hotel rooms.

Rural and small-town visitors: If you live in small-town Manitoba or northwestern Ontario, or even parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, Winnipeg is the closest largish city to go to for the weekend for something a little more diverse than the limited small-town shopping and entertainment options. For many Manitobans, Winnipeg is also the nearest place to go to for appointments with professionals and specialists.

People in transit: Winnipeg’s position on the Trans-Canada Highway, on VIA Rail’s transcontinental rail route and as the transfer point for hunters, anglers and whale/polar bear-watchers heading north allows it to sell some of its attractions as ways to fill the time during stopovers.

People visiting friends and relatives: As the city’s immigrant communities continue to grow by leaps and bounds, this will continue to generate tourist traffic in the form of friends and relatives coming to visit.

One activity that tends to sell well to all of these groups, as well as to locals, is the urban walking tour. As those who have been on walking tours in other cities might attest, a well-done tour not only gives a city a little more character, but is also a good way for visitors to meet other travelers from around the country and the world; some can even take on a flirty edge. (“What happens in Vegas…” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to only Vegas.)

Too bad, then, that Winnipeg’s walking tour scene leaves much to be desired. While there is an array of walking tours offered, it’s a rather scattershot affair.

The West Exchange District tour sounds good if you’re interested in architecture or in hearing more about the stories behind this funky central Winnipeg neighbourhood. But when does it run? The tour’s web site notes that the “first” tour leaves 133 Albert St. at 9 a.m., and the “last” departs at 4:30 p.m. But what about the tours in between? Since it’s a 90-minute tour, do they depart at 90-minute intervals? Who knows? (And if this sounds like a good thing to do on a Sunday, sorry: the tours only run Monday to Saturday.)

I’ve heard great things about the Hermetic Code tour at the Manitoba Legislature. Sounds like an interesting weekend thing to do for locals and visitors alike. The weekend, you say? Sorry, it’s a once-a-week tour, starting on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Weekend visitors and many locals are out of luck.

The Old St. Boniface Tour seems like a good way of exploring the history of Winnipeg’s French-speaking community. It runs twice a day, seven days a week, which is good (though it’s curious that Tourisme Riel, which runs the tour, doesn’t seem to promote it on their own web site). Instead of starting the tour from the Old St. Boniface City Hall on Provencher Boulevard, however, it might make more sense to start from The Forks: this is where one will find the city’s highest concentration of tourists, and that would make it easier to sell the tour as an “impulse purchase” to people with time to kill. Just a suggestion.

And why is the West End BIZ’s Mural Walking Tour alternately shown as departing from 581 Portage Avenue and from Bannatyne Ave., many blocks away? (And the requirement that participants in the Food Tour book “no less than two days prior to the day of the tour” would quite frankly turn me off as a tourist as being annoyingly bureaucratic.)

Aside from a listing on the Tourism Winnipeg web site, many of Winnipeg’s walking tours are otherwise organized and marketed individually. This is a tourism activity, though, which could benefit from common branding.

For example, many of New York’s best walking tours are under the Big Onion Walking Tours umbrella. In London, London Walks offers one-stop shopping for walking tours. In Berlin, the market is split between Original Berlin Walks and New Berlin Tours.

The benefit of having a city’s walking tours organized and marketed under one or two organizations as opposed to Winnipeg’s scattershot arrangement is that many of the tours end up feeding customers into one another: all of the information is in one place, and people who are satisfied with one tour are tempted to try another one of the company’s tours. Getting this aspect of the local tourism industry into better shape would go far to giving visitors a better experience in this city.

No such thing as the General Public

Some years ago, I worked on a project that involved making appointments with and interviewing corporate staff at zoos and aquariums around North America. Out of all the interesting conversations I had, the single most memorable line was, if memory serves me correctly, from an aquarium executive.

“There is no such thing as the general public,” he told me, only individuals looking out for opportunities that appeal to their own interests. The goal of marketing was to get the attention of that small slice of the wider population, and get them in the door.

That seems to be the logic behind Manitoba: Canada’s Heart Beats, a new promotional campaign unveiled last week by Travel Manitoba to social media reactions that ranged from lavish praise to harsh criticism.

As noted in a pre-release presentation, the campaign is intended to reach two segments of the traveling public who have the highest probability of visiting Manitoba for a leisure trip. One group, known as “Cultural Explorers“, are interested in hands-on involvement in a culture — think here of people who prefer to stay in small, intimate homestay or bed-and-breakfast accommodations. The other, known as “Authentic Experiencers“, tend to favour camping, hiking, getting close to wildlife and other outdoors activities.

Both groups, which each consist of about one-in-ten travelers in both Canada and the U.S. according to the Canadian Tourism Commission, tend to travel further from home and more often, and to spend more per visit.

And the other four-fifths of the market? This consists of seven other groups, each of which also makes up little more than a fraction of the marketplace.

  • Cultural history buffs: These travelers don’t just travel for fun — they travel to learn, or to pursue a hobby. They might come here if they have a hobby or interest that has a Manitoba angle; otherwise not.
  • Free spirits: No shady hostels for these folks. They like to be comfortable when they travel — which is as often as possible — and to visit exciting or exotic places. (This is the group I’m most closely aligned with, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission’s online quiz). As they tend to be drawn to top-billed destinations, it’s a challenge to draw them to less prominent markets.
  • Gentle explorers: This is a more conservative group in the sense of preferring the tried-and-tested over the brand-new. They’re often looking for package tours and a sense of structure. If Manitoba is already familiar to them, then all the better; but they are more comfortable with their favourite past destinations than with new and unfamiliar ones.
  • No-hassle travelers: Like the Gentle Explorers, this group also tends to favour the familiar. They tend to take shorter trips closer to home, and like to spend time with family and friends. Look for these within a few hours’ driving distance.
  • Personal history explorers: The name pretty much says it all. These are the sorts of people who go searching for their roots when they travel, whether it be learning more about their ancestors or visiting their great-grandparents homeland. Since Manitoba is a “young” province in the sense that many are the children, grandchildren or great-granchildren of immigrants, relatively few will have deep enough ancestral roots here.
  • Rejuvenators: These travelers hit the road to rest up and recharge their batteries, so to speak. They tend to enjoy resorts and casinos, and frequently travel with their families. Las Vegas, Hawai’i and other sun destinations will be a stronger draw than anything domestically.
  • Virtual travelers: This group is more the “staycation” type, preferring to stay close to home and more likely to attend family events. More or less a captive market.

See also:

Observations, Reservations, Conversations: Manitoba: Canada’s Heart…Beats

A very clever Turkish Airlines ad, in which Argentine-European footballer Lionel Messi and U.S. basketball star Kobe Bryant — evidently both a couple of Free Spirits — try to outdo one another.