Tourism survey highlights county's highs and lows

Promoting the UNESCO designation of the Beaver Hills Biosphere was recommended within the report to increase Strathcona County's tourism opportunities. File Photo jpg, SP

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A plan to tackle Strathcona County’s tourism challenges and priorities presses forward.

In late April, Strathcona County council was provided an update regarding the third phase to create county’s 10-year tourism plan.

“We think this work is very timely and will dovetail quite well into economic recovery tasks to help our retail, hospitality, and accommodation sectors as we look to rebound coming out of the pandemic,” said Shane Olson, manager of commercial development, with Economic Development and Tourism.

In the What We Heard Report: Strathcona County Tourism Strategy and Implementation Plan, feedback was provided by almost 300 residents, 34 stakeholders (including four hotels and 10 local businesses, nine local organizations, two other municipalities and eight tourism organizations), all members of the council, and county staff from eight departments. In total, almost 400 people participated and there were almost 300 responses collected from SCOOP and online surveys.

The majority of respondents at 62 per cent said they’d recommend the county as a place for others to visit.

“Although this can be seen as a good news story, there is still room for improvement,” said Justin Rousseau, managing director of Expedition Management Consulting Ltd., who compiled the report.

In the What We Heard Report: Strathcona County Tourism Strategy and Implementation Plan released in April, respondents outlined these areas as activities that have the greatest potential to be developed to encourage visitation. Graphic Supplied

When it came to the level of satisfaction with local services and amenities, cleanliness ranked No. 1 with 54.9 per cent stating it is very good. Safety and security (50 per cent), accommodations (48.2 per cent), restaurants (35.8 per cent) and parking (33.2 per cent) also ranked very good in the survey.

However, there was much room for improvement since access to public washrooms (19.1 per cent), directional signage (8.9 per cent), access to business services such as internet and printers (5.1 per cent), and online information (4.5 per cent) received poor ratings.


What We Heard Report: Strathcona County Tourism Strategy and Implementation Plan/Graphic Supplied


Providing more things to do: Top area of opportunity highlighted by both public and tourism stakeholders

A resounding 69 per cent said the county can improve on offering more things to do to encourage more tourism and visitation.

More than 70 per cent said they were likely to invite friends or family members to visit the county within the next two years.

“Capitalizing on this demand is seen as a powerful way to grow tourism,” the report stated.

However, if local residents had visitors coming over, they would likely spend time at home (76 per cent). Some would go to festivals and events (44 per cent), another 32 per cent stated they’d take family or friends to natural attractions, and another 27 per cent said they’d go shopping or eat at restaurants.

In terms of the county’s greatest potential, 54 per cent said they’d like to see more festivals and events offered. Community activities (33 per cent), more specialty shops and eateries ( 32 per cent), and natural attractions and programs (27 per cent) were also highlighted for their potential to encourage visitation.

More visitor information (35 per cent) and visitor amenities (28 per cent) were also high on their radar.

Shane Olson, manager of commercial development with the county’s Economic Development and Tourism Department said completing a 10-year tourism strategy is timely for economic recovery after COVID-19. Lindsay Morey/News Staff/File

Stakeholders: Develop experiences, improve visitor amenities

Eight key themes emerged from local tourism stakeholders, which include:

1.) There is strong support for tourism development among many stakeholder groups;

2.) There is a lack of awareness of tourism among some segments of the population;

3.) There is a need for a unifying vision;

4.) There is a need for organizing for tourism development;

5.) There is a willingness to collaborate and partner (60 per cent of stakeholders stated this);

6.) There are a lack of tourism products and operators;

7.) There are opportunities for product development (This would include developing various kinds of tourism, such as nature-based, sport, festivals and events, culture and heritage, agritourism and culinary, and a place to welcome friends and family); and,

8.) There is a desire for enhanced tourism marketing (47 per cent wanted more advertising).

What We Heard Report: Strathcona County Tourism Strategy and Implementation Plan/Graphic Supplied

Stakeholders also wanted the county’s Tourism Master Plan to develop experiences, improve visitor amenities, identify target markets, promote the county as a destination, and improve environmental sustainability. The business and tourism community also highlighted things to do as the county’s greatest area of potential to address, with 89 per cent. That group also wanted visitor amenities (73 per cent) and visitor info (60 per cent) to be addressed.

“Tourism-related businesses and organizations see a distinct opportunity to align tourism marketing activities to reach larger audiences and attract more visitors,” the report explained.

Providing unique experiences

Mentioned numerous times by survey respondents, the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve was pinned as a place the county could increase promotion to raise awareness of its UNESCO designation. Elk Island National Park representatives said they could also provide more nature-based programming linked with the biosphere reserve.

‘The Beavers Hills Biosphere is a bit of a soft spot for myself. It’s a real gem that we have here,” noted Ward 7 Coun. Glen Lawrence. “We have a real draw here to bring people in and I’m really looking forward to moving on that.”

The Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve was mentioned numerous times for its unique tourism opportunities during the consultation for the What We Heard Report: Strathcona County Tourism Strategy and Implementation Plan. According to the report, participants felt that area’s UNESCO designation should be more heavily promoted to raise awareness about its “global recognition of the community’s commitment to conservation and sustainable development.” Photo Supplied

Several other unique experiences were offered as opportunities for tourism development in the county. These ideas included: goat yoga, yurts, geocaching, Scotford Hutterite Colony, and agritourism.

Other suggested tourism amenities that could be developed included; bed and breakfasts, equine and cattle industry, culinary experiences, RV campgrounds with septic disposal, corporate retreats and team building, and more off-leash dog parks.

“We know there is a lack of product, so we need to ask why is that… Certainly, there is opportunity for more collaboration, so you could repack some of the things that you already have into offering experiences. That would be a quick win,” Rousseau told council. “But also, there could be an education piece for operators… to make it into a market-ready experience and there are some good training opportunities through Travel Alberta that we will be recommending in the plan… There is a host of other things you could do as a county to be encouraging in the investment climate and we will outline that in the draft plan. There’s a long list.”

Tourism challenges

Persisting challenges in the report were;

  • Attracting and serving visitors is viewed as outside the mandate for many county departments;
  • Staff felt they are at or near capacity to deliver on events and activities in the county;
  • There is a need for improved role clarity;
  • There is a need to better understand appropriate levels of support for community-focused events vs. tourism-focused events;
  • Potential risks associated with overtourism (such as overcrowding);
  • County staff was uncertain whether tourism is a priority for the municipality.
  • There is a perceived lack of campground/RV accommodations in the county.

This information will be compiled into a draft strategy and implementation plan. The public and stakeholders will have a chance to review the draft before the final report will be released in July.

“I’m very excited about tourism opportunities so I’m very much looking forward to the further development of this report,” said Mayor Rod Frank.

The provincial tourism industry is valued at $8.9 billion, according to Travel Alberta.