COLUMN: A city’s vibe is its biggest attraction

The search for an iconic tourist attraction has been on the mind of many in Nanaimo lately.

The search for an iconic tourist attraction has been on the mind of many in Nanaimo lately, at least those charged with improving tourism in this town.

Some have suggested a bridge to Newcastle Island, others an improved or enhanced waterfront promenade. Others still think an aquarium, an idea that has been kicked around for decades, is the silver bullet to attract people here.

Even the idea of a tram to the summit of Mount Benson has been considered.

Embarking on what it calls a three-year Tourism Strategic Plan, the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation will be surveying tourism stakeholders to determine how tourism here can be improved.

But is it an attraction that we’re missing? We already have Newcastle Island, Mount Benson Regional Park, the Boat Basin, top-shelf recreational facilities and a first-class museum to name a few.

Sure, some great Canadian cities have attractions – Calgary has the Stampede, Toronto the CN Tower – but these by themselves don’t singularly drive the economy of either city. They’re icing on the cake.

In order to have a good foundation in which to build an attraction, you have to have a city vibe that people want to be a part of.

Do we have that? If we do, is it strong enough to attract people?

When you think of Montreal, what jumps out at you? Nothing really, you just know Montreal has a good thing going. The people are interesting, the culture is strong, the food is good, the history is remarkable.

Montreal has good cake.

How about Halifax? Nothing really specific going on there. Maybe good pubs. But Halifax has good cake, too. So does Winnipeg, Victoria, St. John’s and Saskatoon.

It’s not so much what a city has in so-called attractions, but what kind of attitude it has. Is the restaurant staff friendly? Is transit reliable and easy? Is information easily accessible? Are the hotels places you would want to stay again? Is the downtown interesting? Are the locals helpful and friendly?

Last summer, I spent a weekend in downtown Vancouver. I asked my hotel’s concierge where a good Greek restaurant could be found. He provided three options within walking distance, and I selected one. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by the restaurant’s hostess, asked how my stay in Vancouver was going, and then asked how things in Nanaimo were.

I was stunned. She had taken the time, despite what appeared to be an extremely busy night, to inquire to my concierge more about her arriving guest. That’s where tourism starts.

When people walk off a cruise ship in Nanaimo, an aquarium might be an attraction, but the majority of visitors will be tapped in to the city’s vibe.

They’ll be gauging the contentedness of the local population. Are people pumped to be here? Is there pride in what people do for a living?

Visitors pick up on that stuff. I know I do when I travel and visit other places. From little villages to big cities, it’s easy to sense civic pride, and even easier to sense a lack of it.

Would an aquarium, as an example, fit in? Maybe. But before we begin dropping cash on what we think visitors might like to see here, it might be worthwhile to ensure the citizens footing the bill and paying the taxes are content first.

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