Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

How can our tourism industry flourish if you can't get here from there?

Newfoundland and Labrador is getting a lot right with tourism, but there’s a massive problem with air connections, says columnist Edward Riche.

We've got things to see, but good luck finding a way in

Looks great. How do we get there? (Barrett & MacKay/Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism)

Many years ago, I and my then business partner, the late Dave Roe, pitched an idea to some Newfoundland civil servants responsible for tourism.

We proposed buying space in German magazines — the likes of Der Spiegel and Stern — with the intention of luring outdoorsy Deutsche marks to our shores.

The advertisement was to be a photograph of an illuminated neon hotel "vacancy" sign standing alone, at magic hour, in a vast expanse of Newfoundland wilderness, an incongruous electrified beacon in some patch of virgin forest around Granite Lake.

The picture would be captioned, "Keine Hauswirtschaft. Kein Zimmerservice. Kein Telefon. Keine Dusche." ("No housekeeping. No room service. No phone. No shower.")

It was poorly received.

The drive at the time was to attract bus tours from the United States. The officials at tourism wanted potential visitors assured we had indoor plumbing, paved roads and shopping malls.

There are currently fewer international connections to St. John's International Airport than there have been in previous years. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Pitching isolation and a lack of amenities, even if it was to the crowded Bundesrepublik, was unthinkable. One of the bureaucrats, a lower-ranking lad in an ill-fitting naphthalene-scented suit did allow there might be other markets than American bus tours. He had heard tell of an English fellow who spent "$5,000 to get a picture of a friggin' gannet!" 

The most senior official present was suspicious of Europeans generally.

A cosmopolitan conspiracy?

I sensed he was wondering whether Dave and I might be agents of some sinister cosmopolitan conspiracy to get Newfoundland youth to read philosophy and eat smelly cheese. How else to explain our initiative?

I got out of the advertising racket to pursue the big money in writing novels and plays.

From the outside, things appeared to be improving slowly; the local tourism brain trust was growing more sophisticated.

Then came those award-winning television spots — the bedclothes billowing dreamily on the line, freckle-faced, louse-free youngsters gallivanting on the landwash, saltboxes done up like sticks of gum, geezers building wooden punts.

Socks on the line, children on the romp: those tourism spots sure do project a lovely vision of rural Newfoundland.

The production values were high, the colours saturated.

They would surely compel any corner of the market — Teutonic adventurers, Yanks in Winnebagos, uptight Ontarians — to spend their next vacation in Canada's Happy Province.

Now there's Come From Away selling us the world over. The local restaurant scene has gone from dire to delicious, "vaut le détour," they say.

Thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of Donna Butt, the Bonavista Peninsula is on wheels. Woody Point hosts the best literary festival in North America in the shadow of Gros Morne.

Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism campaign has attracted much attention over the years from visitors around the world.

Tourists come here and have life-changing experiences watching whales, puffins and icebergs. April in luminous Labrador is yet to be discovered.

We finally seemed to have figured it out.

That's nice; now try getting here

But as attractive a destination as Newfoundland and Labrador might be, it remains difficult and costly to reach.

For decades now Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism strategy has neglected the most important component: access. The ferries to the mainland aren't cheap and getting here by car is time consuming. Air routes in and out of this place remain maddeningly limited and overpriced.

The Way Forward, evidently, features a layover in Halifax.

One of the few advantages of our location is proximity to Europe and its markets.

Surely CETA has to be about more than Spaniards catching our last few fish? Yet we are forever being asked to fly west to go east. Not only is this patently absurd, expensive and inconvenient, it is environmentally unconscionable. This summer, with the grounding of Air Canada's Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, you can add a minimum of 10 hours onto the five it takes to fly directly across the pond.

More than one person observed on the Alcock and Brown centennial that, back in 1919, at least there was an overseas flight out of St. John's.

Alcock and Brown at least provided their own means of transportation to Europe. (Elsie Holloway / MUN Coll-232, 3.08)

A trip to Newfoundland would have considerable appeal to the Parisian or barcelonés broiling on the pavement in 40-degree heat if they didn't have to fly over the island to get here by flying back and then go home by flying west to fly back over the place they just went.

Two weeks ago ads appear in my Twitter feed from discount carrier Condor offering flights out of Halifax to Frankfurt, to Paris, to Lisbon…

Direct air routes are about more than tourism; they are about facilitating business activity, trade. Missing the irony, the Newfoundland government has even touted this place as having a future in the aerospace industry. The Way Forward, evidently, features a layover in Halifax.

(I've often wondered if the Atlantic fleet of the Canadian navy was more a Nova Scotia make-work project than a genuine fighting force. Based in Halifax, it is two days' steam farther from potential engagements to the north and east than it would be out of Placentia Bay. The Russians could be having a lunch off Nain by the time the HMCS Peter Mackay made Cape Race.)

We are trying desperately to attract young people, keeping the place difficult and pricey to reach doesn't help our case.

We can never be a destination if you can't get here from there.

The carriers poorly serving us are called "Air Canada" and "WestJet". The names betray their focus. Every time there has been an alternate service to London Air Canada has driven them away with predatory pricing. They claim AC YYT-LHR is here to stay but always end up cancelling the flight and forcing us to route through the colonial headquarters in Halifax.

Surely there are folks in government and the airport authority dedicated to finding a remedy to this nearly perennial problem. After all the great majority of the province's population LIVE ON AN ISLAND! And who knows, maybe competition from other players might make air travel within our own country more reasonable.

We often hear that ours isn't a large enough market to justify regular service to London, Paris, Frankfurt or New York. But there is a chicken and egg analysis to that argument. And somehow there is direct summer service between tiny St. Pierre and La France. One of the world's foremost luxury hotels is situated on Fogo Island.

We can never be a destination if you can't get here from there.

Who knows, maybe an online video campaign to tempt the post-Berlin Wall Germans. Slow pans of abandoned air strips, grass growing in the widening cracks in the tarmac. Wind whistling through the gaps around the windows in a crumbling air traffic control tower. A rusting radar antenna like a scare crow. Werner Herzog intones in voiceover, "Keine Flüge" (No Flights).

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Edward Riche

Contributor

Edward Riche writes for the page, stage and screen. He lives in St. John's.

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