Municipalities squabble over Tourism Victoria funding

Part II in a series look at tourism around the Island

It may be a tourist’s haven in the summer, but municipalities around the region have squabbled for years about who pays to keep visitors pulling out their wallets to come to Vancouver Island.

“From our point of view, we look after our own residents rather than the summer touristy crowd,” said Langford Mayor Stew Young. “Every municipality has to look at its strengths, and it is hard to do marketing year round, but we have our focus on pulling in sports teams and giving our residents great entertainment, and we do an excellent job of that.”

Langford isn’t alone in that philosophy, and has made a conscious choice not to dedicate its hotel tax to Tourism Victoria – the organization that is largely credited for drawing in the estimated three million tourists visit Victoria each year.

Though Tourism Victoria stopped doing exit surveys due to cost in 2009, which tracked exact visitor numbers, said Tourism Victoria board chair Dave Cowen, more sophisticated marketing tools through Trip Advisor, Stats Canada and web statistics keeps the organization knowing where to market.

In 2012, the top-five incoming destinations were from Europe, the U.S. and Mexico, Washington, other parts of Canada and B.C.

And though Victoria is not seeing the kind of tourists it saw 10 years ago, Cowen said, that’s “a Canadian issue more than a destination issue.”

“The figures can be really misleading,” Cowen said. “Sept. 11 changed everything, and the visitor economy is still trying to recalibrate in Canada, so we have to work even harder to make sure that happens.”

Currently, seven out of 13 south Island municipalities hold a membership, which chimes in at $695 a year – or $395 for a reduced rate – and entitles participants to a listing on TourismVictoria.ca and in the annual Vacation Guide, social media tools, a brochure rack at the Visitor Centre, visitor maps, decals and voting rights (reduced members lose their listing in the Vacation Guide and visitor sections of the website).

Members also receive special promotions, discounts and sales leads, and more benefits can be included for $350 each add-on.

The Town of Sidney is pleased with the contributions its membership grants.

Mayor Larry Cross said the 15 per cent increase in American ferry traffic from Anacortes is mainly due to the tourism pull of Butchart Gardens and other elements the Island is known for, which benefits everyone – even though Sidney is already fortunate to have a strong manufacturing industry.

Interestingly, Butchart Gardens is a private member with Tourism Victoria, while Central Saanich, where the hotspot is located, is not.

Cross said Sidney benefits from plenty of “run-off traffic” from the Gardens, as well as ferry passengers on their way through.

“Tourism is the most significant economy we have, and any supportive marketing we can do is a good thing,” Cross said. “All vessels rise together when the water comes up.”

Still, Sooke is one municipality that prefers to go it alone. The Sooke Region Tourism Association is funded by a provincial and municipal grant. It offers membership at $125 a year, and is working on collecting a hotel tax from the three hotels and bed and breakfasts in the area.

“There’s always been the criticism that our voice is smothered by bigger interests,” said Sooke acting mayor Maya Tait.

“How do we get the representation? We do like the fact that we are our own entity, and Sooke is a volunteer-based community. Making a trip into town is time spent away from helping our own community.”

Despite its small budget, Sooke has forged successful partnerships with Tourism Vancouver Island, Tofino, Blackball Transport out of Port Angeles and the province of Alberta. Other areas on the north peninsula have taken a similar lead.

Though Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin won’t weigh in on whether it’s fair for some municipalities to benefit from the central pull without contributing, he does point to the need for every arm of the region to view membership as an essential investment.

“The reach of Tourism Victoria is so high, and it just doesn’t make sense for each of the municipalities to market themselves,” Fortin said.

“This is an industry we all need to continue to promote and, no matter where you live, it’s good for the whole.”