New Brunswickers are resilient. We are creative. We can do incredible things when pushed to think outside traditional parameters. And shaking up the status quo of our provincial approach to tourism is not a bad idea. I’m encouraged by Premier Blaine Higgs’ decision to hire Yennah Hurley as a consultant in the tourism department. He says it’s a move to bring a different perspective into the mix, to broaden the government’s imagination when it comes to tourism. We do need that.
But we also need the brick-and-mortar establishments that create the types of connections that online resources just aren’t capable of producing. So I was shocked and saddened to see that visitor information centres in Aulac and Woodstock have been shut down in a bid to cut spending in the tourism department.
I’ve driven past the centres in Aulac and Woodstock; I’ll admit, they didn’t make me want to pull off and visit. Change is necessary, as is frugality with our spending. But I’ve also felt compelled to pull into visitor information centres in many other provinces. I’ve stopped to snap the silly tourist photo that documents a border crossing. I’ve picked up maps and magazines and local coupon books. I’ve picnicked. I’ve used the restroom. I’ve talked to keen, knowledgeable people who have made me feel welcome and sparked my interest in their communities. There is incredible power in a well-placed, well-run visitor centre with some extra incentive that convinces travellers to stop.
New Brunswick’s reputation as a drive-through province is well-established for a reason; we’ve allowed it be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do not do enough to draw people from the main highway and ask them to truly enjoy all that this province has to offer. Encourage them to take the scenic route. Show them what lies beyond the four lanes and forests. Pique their curiosity. This is what a visitor information centre can accomplish.
Online marketing campaigns, grassroots or commissioned Instagram content, and individual tourism operators and local entrepreneurs can only do so much to entice people to explore our province. We still need those on-the-ground guides that can answer questions, make recommendations, and help navigate the online wealth of information available to visitors – both those from outside the province and those within.
I spent two summers working in visitor information centres like the ones in Aulac and Woodstock. I understand the nuances of service provided that are hard to quantify on a budget spreadsheet, with the capitol expense of such a facility looming large. I’ve also spent the last four years helping people connect with information online, sharing lists of best ice cream spots, playgrounds to visit, festivals to enjoy with young families. I know the work it takes to find this information and how hungry people are for it. This is why I think shutting the doors in Aulac and Woodstock is short-sighted; the abundance of online resources often makes it difficult for individuals, both visitors and residents, to actually find actionable information. Those who do find their way off the beaten path because of a viral photo or engaging blog post are still searching for more local recommendations and direction.
Certainly times have changed since I was a university tourism employee, and our centres do need to evolve. But removing them to rely on online resources, without a clear strategy in place, is a gamble I’m not comfortable with this province making. Tourism is a key industry for New Brunswick and we can’t just assume that existing online information can fill the gap left by closing these centres.