Tourism Nanaimo anticipates the city could see an overflow of visitors who would have otherwise gone to Victoria or Tofino as those communities see accommodations filling up. (Nanaimo Bulletin photo)

Tourism Nanaimo anticipates the city could see an overflow of visitors who would have otherwise gone to Victoria or Tofino as those communities see accommodations filling up. (Nanaimo Bulletin photo)

More than a Gateway: Vancouver Island’s Nanaimo positioned as a key visitor destination

Tourism Nanaimo is optimistic about this summer season based on what operators reported last year and because of an expected overflow of visitors intended for Victoria or Tofino.

During the city council meeting on Monday, April 25, Tourism Nanaimo’s interim executive director Jenn Houtby-Ferguson provided council with a tourism update, as well as a brief on preliminary market research findings. She also stood in for Dan Brady, executive director of the Nanaimo Hospitality Association, to provide the association’s activity update and performance report.

“The key findings from that was that Nanaimo was a ‘gateway’ or ‘stop’ – people weren’t coming here to stay. And we want to shift that. We want to shift from being a gateway to being a destination for travel,” she said.

Efforts to develop a distinct identity for the city might include “embracing the history” and “sharing the uniqueness” of the community, she said, with emphasis on the mining history and working port downtown.

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Houtby said many tourism operators reported that July and August last year were “among the strongest ever,” despite COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“We recognize that international visitation was down, but we did see a lot of domestic visitation and we saw a lot of folks from other parts of the Island – other parts of British Columbia visiting our community. And that’s extremely positive. We expect that to continue,” she said.

Future market research priorities would also focus on figuring out who the city’s visitors are, and if those visitor profiles have changed as a result of COVID-19. Houtby-Ferguson said the organization plans to use the data to inform campaigns for this and future years.

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She said goals for the municipal and regional district tax plan, commonly referred to as the hotel tax, include “increasing overnight visitation, supporting product development, developing industry partnerships, the marketing of public relations, community pride and accountability.”

In reference to what else Nanaimo’s visitors are looking for, she said an aspect she is proud of is the organization’s continued focus on accessibility assessments.

“And that is just ensuring that people who have diverse abilities know where they can go in our community. And that allows us to continue to leverage the amazing inclusive park at Maffeo Sutton Park, but allowing them to know where else they can go,” she said.

Following the presentations, Coun. Erin Hemmens asked what was being done to increase community pride, as it is “something Nanaimo struggles with.” Houtby-Ferguson said the conversation had come up during the ReImagine Nanaimo process.

“We need to engage the community to figure out what is it that they’re really excited about – what are they proud of in our community,” she said, adding what residents love is often what visitors love about the community as well. “We need the community to stand behind our tourism brand because we want them to invite their friends and family.”

When asked by Coun. Ian Thorpe if Nanaimo is being considered “the centre of a wheel” as a place for visitors to stay while exploring other parts of the Island, Houtby-Ferguson confirmed the idea was something the NHA was doing as a strategic priority for the summer.

“Tofino and Victoria are already at a place where they can’t accept additional visitors at this time. People can day-trip from Nanaimo – we’ve re-positioned some of our itineraries to help people understand what can they see on the way,” she said. “They could stay in Nanaimo and hopefully that would mean that they would extend their stay in Nanaimo. So instead of being here, let’s say for two or three nights, perhaps they might be with us for seven nights. And they could use Nanaimo as their jumping-off point.”

During her tourism update, she noted an “extreme positive” for the community, despite air capacity challenges in adding additional routes. According to Houtby-Ferguson, the direct Nanaimo-to-Toronto flights through Air Canada will launch again on June 27 – a week earlier than last year which launched on July 4 – and will fly three times a week instead of once a week.

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