Nfld. & Labrador

Gros Morne tourism industry comes together to brainstorm future growth

The region's third annual tourism forum brought together stakeholders to discuss how best to build the industry, without impacting its pristine wilderness.

3rd annual tourism forum explores how to build the industry without impacting the park's pristine wilderness

As local stakeholders gathered to talk tourism inside on Monday, Gros Morne Mountain already had a good topping of snow outside. (Troy Turner/CBC)

As tourists flock to the Gros Morne area in increasing numbers, tourism operators, community stakeholders and groups along with Parks Canada took time this week to plot a way forward for the industry.

Dozens of people gathered at the park's visitor centre in Rocky Harbour for the third annual Gros Morne Tourism Forum on Monday and Tuesday, taking in sessions and sharing experiences.

"Tourism in Gros Morne has been our new fishery," said Colleen Kennedy of the Gros Morne Co-operating Association, a non-profit group that promotes the park and helps bring it and the local communities together.

Gros Morne National Park has seen steady growth within the last decade. In 2012, the park logged 182,000 visitors, but by 2016 that number jumped to 240,000. 2018's season dipped slightly, to 233,200.

And as the park has grown, Kennedy said so has the surrounding industry, and also a need to create a plan to manage future growth.

"As you walk around these communities you'll see a lot of development, a lot of accommodations," she said.

"What we're looking forward to now is, pause, we need a tourism plan … so we don't destroy the one thing people are coming here to experience."

Attracting millennials, extending the season

To kick off the forum, Parks Canada outlined some of its visitor experience strategies. That strategy notes that while the majority of park visitors are 55 years and older, as millennials make up an increasing segment of the Canadian population overall, a larger effort should be made to attract them.

The park's 10-year management plan was approved by Parliament in August, and that document also stressed a need to cater to that demographic.

"It's good to see they're acknowledging the growth with the active, millennial market," said Stephen Wheeler, who runs the Gros Morne Outdoors Company. 

People are certainly willing to pay for the product we offer here in western Newfoundland.- Stephen Wheeler

Wheeler's company has been up and running for three years, offering guided hikes and multi-day trips, and he says during that time he's seen an increase in younger demographics coming to the area and looking for adventurous experiences.

Wheeler has also been attempting to diversify his tours beyond the summer season, which remains the bread and butter of Gros Morne's tourism industry.

He offers ski tours, and says in the national tourism snapshot of winter experiences, Gros Morne gets overlooked.

Stephen Wheeler of the Gros Morne Outdoors Company would like to see the region's winter offerings promoted better. (Troy Turner/CBC)

"I think there is a lot of room for growth. When people come and see, in terms of the quality of the mountains, the snow, the terrain, people are just blown away," he said.

"People are certainly willing to pay for the product we offer here in western Newfoundland."

While the area mostly shuts down in the winter — Parks Canada's visitor centres close up shop, as do the vast majority of local restaurants and accommodations — Kennedy did note that the area has been making progress to expand into the shoulder season.

"Around 2004, we were a seven-week industry. We've moved now to a four-month industry," she said.

In its management plan, Parks Canada has also pledged to assess its non-motorized winter experiences by 2021 and collaborate with tourism operators.

The Gros Morne Co-operating Association hopes to create a tourism plan in the next three years to develop the industry, while maintaining the area's wilderness. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kennedy said her group is working toward building a larger tourism plan for the region, hopefully ready in three years time.

The park has also committed to establish a business licensing program to create what it terms "a fair business environment" incorporating environmental protection as well as visitor experiences by 2020.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Troy Turner

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