Online praise for Manitoba doesn't paint a real picture of provincial tourism

Visitors to Winnipeg are far more likely to come from Hamiota or Hadashville than they are from Hamburg, Statistics Canada's data says.

But that doesn't stop politicians from trying to bask in the glow of the northern lights

Brian Pallister checked out the polar bears at Assiniboine Park Zoo when he ran for office in 2016. Tourist attractions are also a magnet for political leaders. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Manitoba politicians want you to know the rest of world really, really likes us. For proof of that affirmation, they turn to the most objective sources on the planet: listicles!

When travel-guidebook publisher Lonely Planet listed this province among the "world's best travel destinations" on its website this spring, Premier Brian Pallister could not contain his joy.

"Watch as we put Manitoba on the #bestintravel map!" he proclaimed on Twitter.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman also tweeted a link to the Lonely Planet post, excerpting the website's assertion visitors to the city "are finally awake to its charms: cutting-edge museums and architectural marvels, top-notch eateries, fun cultural events."

Not to be outdone by Lonely Planet, a Denver travel blogger who operates a website called Travel Lemming named Manitoba one of North America's nine "top emerging travel destinations," while accommodations site Airbnb named Winnipeg one of its "19 trending destinations to visit in 2019," alongside Uzbekistan, Mozambique and Pondicherry, India.

Tourism authorities were delighted, as tourism authorities ought to be when Winnipeg and Manitoba receive free publicity in online platforms, both well-known and obscure.

Airbnb declared its listicle was based on increases in search traffic for rental accommodations. The Lonely Planet and Travel Lemming posts based their positive assessments of Manitoba on more qualitative criteria.

Different picture in StatsCan data

But just in case anyone in this city or province is tempted to believe Winnipeg is now whispered in the same reverential tones as Pondicherry and Manitoba has become as sexy as Mozambique, tourism data compiled by Statistics Canada paints a very different picture of the people who actually visit this corner of the continent.

In short, visitors to Winnipeg are far more likely to come from Hamiota or Hadashville than they are from Hamburg. Visitors to Manitoba are far more likely to come from Langruth or Lundar than they are from London.

In 2016, the most recent year for which tourism data is available, Manitobans accounted for 85 per cent of the 10.6 million tourist visits within the province, according to Statistics Canada.

Visitors from other Canadian provinces accounted for 10 per cent of tourist visits and U.S. travellers made up four per cent, while overseas visitors only comprised one per cent of our visitors, the statistics agency concluded.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is one of Winnipeg's more recent tourist attractions. (John Einarson/CBC)

These tourist visits do not equal visitors, it should be noted. A traveller who stays in Manitoba for a week can be counted as six discrete "overnight person-visits," in the language of tourism statistics.

As well, not all tourists are created equal. The farther a tourist travels, the more they spend.

That's why overseas visitors to Manitoba accounted for eight per cent of tourism spending in the province in 2016 — $124 million of $1.6 billion overall — even though they accounted for only one per cent of visits.

The latter statistic explains why tourism authorities get so excited by any uptick in overseas travellers, not to mention any publicity that may encourage those visits.

A 'natural paradise?'

But that publicity rings less true the closer you get to home. The Travel Lemming blog, for example, referred to Manitoba  as "a natural paradise," a description that could be described in charitable terms as hyperbole.

While Manitoba doesn't deserve a starring role in the depressing documentary Anthropocene, this province is no more a paradise than Michigan or Montana.

Manitoba still allows logging in its parks, peat mining in its wetlands and has geo-engineered its major waterways to the point where most of the once mighty Churchill River's flow enters Hudson Bay through the Nelson River.

'Elevator row' in tiny Inglis preserves four wooden grain elevators built in 1922 and a fifth added two decades later. Lonely Planet lists this national historic site as the No. 1 thing to see in Manitoba. (Bryan Scott)

Then there's Lonely Planet, whose guidebooks are well regarded for their objectivity — but whose online recommendations can be idiosyncratic.

For example, the website lists the Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site as the No. 1 sight to see in the province, Gypsy's Bakery as a preferred dining destination in Churchill and the Sherbrook Street Deli as a Winnipeg eatery recommendation.

That deli has closed, the bakery has burned down and the giant grain elevators — while certainly worthy of a detour for motorists travelling along Highway 83 — probably ought not to outrank, say, Kwasitchewan Falls on the Grass River or the Spirit Sands in Spruce Woods, when it comes to Manitoban visual majesty.

Politicians can't take credit for praise

The point here is not to nitpick Lonely Planet, never mind the previously relatively obscure Travel Lemming. The point is to be mindful when politicians attempt to bask in the fleeting glory of an online listicle.

Manitoba's premier and Winnipeg's mayor can no more take credit for ephemeral external praise than they can for the existence of polar bears and aurora borealis. 

But they can take credit for funding tourism and economic development agencies, several of which face consolidation at the hands of a provincial government that has mused Manitoba funds too many.

The future of funding for agencies such as Travel Manitoba, Economic Development Winnipeg and the World Trade Centre may become clearer on Thursday, when Pallister issues his annual state of the province speech.

Ultimately, it appears the only affirmation that matters in Manitoba is the one that arrives when the deficit is tamed and the books are sufficiently balanced to warrant Pallister's long-promised one-percentage-point provincial sales tax cut. 


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


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