Halifax Tourism 2023: An overview, an update, and an inclusive model

Halifax Tourism 2023: An overview, an update, and an inclusive model

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Pam Sullivan | Published: June 1, 2023

Continuing pent-up demand or post-COVID travel “fever” might just be the catch phrase of the year where Halifax tourism is concerned. Using hotel rooms sold as a proxy or indicator of where things currently stand, says Discover Halifax President and CEO, Ross Jefferson, is giving early signs of a strong summer season coming down the pike.

“Last year, our total number of rooms sold was the highest we’ve ever had: 4.5 per cent higher than 2019 (pre-COVID), so the visitation economy, in terms of demand, certainly has come back,” he says. “We're monitoring numbers, and we’re ahead of last year to date, so we’re starting off strong. And our hotel partners tell us they have a strong pace ahead.”

A surprising jump in interest

And if 2022 website visitation numbers are any indication, interest in Halifax is continuing to grow. Recent national Discover Halifax marketing campaigns seem to be working their magic, with some truly impressive increases noted from 2022 website traffic compared to 2019: Ontario saw a 43 per cent jump, Alberta 58 per cent, and Newfoundland and Labrador up a whopping 498 per cent. When drilling down to specific cities, Discover Halifax saw the highest interest from St. John’s, with a 539 per cent increase; Toronto, with 79 per cent; Edmonton at 71 per cent; and Calgary up 34 per cent.

Halifax, unlike many other cities, had a recovery plan in place, says Jefferson, which, in part, explains the rebounding numbers.

“Halifax and many of the private operators got ready quicker and faster for the recovery than many other destinations in Canada,” Jefferson says.

That quicker action he’s referring to is primarily around hotel staffing: bringing staff back and getting ready. He admits that the first quarter of 2022 “looked pretty bleak” because of Omicron but says that things played out much better than expected after those first few months. Jefferson also gives credit to the Municipality and various partner agencies, like Build Nova Scotia, who were onboard with investing in community programming and events when many areas of the country were opting to stick with a virtual model.

“We had a wonderful lineup of live performances and activities, while, at the same time in our history, kicking off a pretty significant national marketing campaign — all across Canada,” he says. “And at a time when it was uncertain to do so, we made a serious investment of a million dollars in that campaign, and pretty quickly saw amazing results.”

A three-part strategy

Discover Halifax, says Jefferson, entered the pandemic with a three-part strategy: phase one was immediate support for businesses — with a focus on cash flow; phase two was to get access to markets and get customers back in; and phase three was to build back better; all part of the agency’s five-year Integrated Tourism Master Plan, released in February 2021. Unfortunate timing, perhaps, but Jefferson says a comment from the plan’s primary consultant turned that thinking around for him.

“She said, ‘Ross, this is the worst time you could probably ever be trying to launch a plan, but this is the best time ever to have a plan’,” he says.

Of the 28 recommendations in the plan, says Ross, about half have had significant progress or have been accomplished, which he says was as a result of projects being “shovel ready” when federal funding for the tourism industry came in.

Some of the larger projects which have been completed include:

  • The financing and establishment of an Events Office.
  • The Implementation of the Peggy’s Cove Master Plan.
  • An expanded focus on the development of Halifax as a destination (and supply side challenges).
  • The full implementation of the Harbour Islands Visitor Experience Strategy (Georges Island).
  • The creation of a permanent national marking program — expansion outside Atlantic Canada.
  • The adoption of ride-hailing services.

A collaborative approach

And when Jefferson talks about the city’s successful tourism bounce back, he’s quick to point out that much of it is owing to a collaboration between different partner agencies and levels of government working together for the collective good of the city. Pointing to the Municipality, he gives them credit for working with hotels to help raise the hotel tax to be closer to national standards, while also working, more recently, on policy changes for short-term rentals.

“There’s always, naturally, a bit of conflict between different levels of government and different agencies, but the level of cooperation that happens in Halifax, in my opinion, exceeds what happens in other jurisdictions,” he says. “I point to the great work that was done by the Chamber during the pandemic. In the industry calls that we had, there was always a strong relationship between the partners who were trying to make Halifax a better place — basically all rowing in the same direction.”

And while things are ticking along nicely in terms of tourism interest and numbers, Jefferson says there’s still work to be done, citing the need to take another look at an arts district for the waterfront, as well as the ongoing issue of air access and development.

“It’s a good time — approximately halfway through the Plan’s timeline — to look back at some of the initiatives that are at risk, or some of the initiatives that need to be considered,” he says.

And his hopes and expectations for the coming season are strong — mirroring his enthusiastic and optimistic view of Halifax’s future in terms of attracting visitors, despite a somewhat shaky economy.

“We have a significant lineup of major events and conferences, including NAIG 2023, and a strong pace. We’re optimistic we’re going to have a very good year.”

Forging New Tourism Alliances

Increasingly, Halifax is garnering a much-coveted reputation as a destination travel location for traditionally underserved or underrecognized groups. One such group is the 2SLGBTQI+ community.

One of the people leading this progressive charge is Connor McKiggan, Business Manager for the CGLCC — Chamber of Commerce for the 2SLGBTQI+ community in Canada, which works to help businesses interested in bringing inclusion to their workplace. Work, Mckiggan says, he “fell in love with” while working with businesses going through CGLCC’s Rainbow Registered Accreditation Program.

“There’s so much going on in this world right now that it’s really uplifting to come to work every day and work with people who want to do better and make positive changes,” he says.

McKiggan, based in Halifax, works with businesses across the country, but says most recently he’s had a more Atlantic Canadian focus thanks to what he calls “a beautiful grant from ACOA.” The grant, which covers all the initial fees for the Rainbow Registered program, is, as McKiggan points out, giving businesses in the region the opportunity to get business development training around how they can boost inclusion while also expanding from local to national in scope.

“You know, we’re going to see a busy tourism season this year with all kinds of folks from not just across Canada, but across the world,” he says. “So, demonstrating inclusion through that national standard that the Chamber recognizes is a great way to show off what an inclusive travel destination Nova Scotia can be.”

More than just a rainbow flag

The point of the program, says McKiggan, is not for businesses to “get accreditation by putting up a rainbow flag,” but to show it “holistically” throughout the business. The program’s four pillars of accreditation are: policies and practices as a business; internal leadership; external engagement of the community; and training done.

Under each of the pillars, he says, there are eight to 10 best practices that the program puts forward as a national standard for inclusion, but notes there is flexibility in the process.

“The point of the accreditation isn’t to have every single one of the best practices checked, but instead to set a tangible path forward for what inclusion can look like,” he says.

Adding that he’s yet to come across a single business which has checked every box, the focus he says is, in large part, around education.

“The point of having such rigorous standards is to demystify what inclusion looks like in the business,” he says. “A lot of businesses know they want to do better, but what does that really look like?”

Some of what that looks like is training around the use of pronouns, what the pronouns are, what the 2SLGBTQI+ acronym actually means, and what meaningful engagement with the community actually looks like, says McKiggan.

In real terms

And in terms of how the Program works with respect to real world travellers, there’s a link on Rainbow Registered’s site which brings interested travellers to a map of participating Canadian business. Those businesses include, but are not limited to, coffee shops, Airbnbs, hotels, tourist destinations, museums, art galleries, and theatres.

“When it comes to the 2SLGBTQI+ travel industry, there are a lot of folks in that community who like to travel. And when you deliver an inclusive experience, it’s something they’ll share with their community, and something they’ll want to come back and revisit,” he says.

And if numbers are any indication, Halifax has been more than pulling its weight, says McKiggan. In May of last year there were a total of approximately 50 businesses involved, nation-wide. Jumping to current day, he says, the program is just about to hit 300, with just under 80 of those being in Halifax alone.

“We’re so very proud of the reception that the program has had in Halifax,” he says.

And although his specific focus right now is within the tourism industry, McKiggan points out that it doesn’t need to end there.

“Rainbow registered is absolutely for everyone. You’re going to see a huge presence of it within the tourism industry, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re a law firm or a group of realtors, in construction, health care or education, Rainbow Registered is a program for every workplace.”

For more information on the Rainbow Registered program, visit: https://rainbowregistered.ca

Elevating the Black tourism experience

For young entrepreneur, Rene Boudreau, this time three years ago might just have seemed to be the most unfortunate time to launch a new plan or start a new business, but as was the case with Discover Halifax, she soon discovered it was, in some ways, the best.

Boudreau, who in late 2019 started her online tourism business, Elevate & Explore Black NS, geared to serving traditionally underserved Black travellers, quickly discovered a more local group of clients than she’d originally anticipated.

“I know it doesn’t seem like an ideal time to start a tourism business but for me it was the ideal time,” she says. “My initial goal was to attract Black travellers to Nova Scotia, but it ended up shifting to encouraging local people to get out and explore their own province.”

A Halifax transplant from Truro, Boudreau, who moved here to attend Dalhousie and currently works full-time in the non-profit sector, says she was drawn to this particular side gig because of some of her own lived experiences — both inside and outside the province.

“Very often, when I’d travel outside the province I’d meet people who looked like me and asked where I was from,” she says. “When I’d say Nova Scotia, a lot of times I’d get a surprised ‘there are Black people in Nova Scotia?!’ response.”

Wondering why so few people knew about the 400-year history of the Black community in this province gave her pause and led her to take a closer look at tourism marketing in the province, as well as why there were a noticeable lack of people who resembled her at various tourism sites around Nova Scotia.

“I took a look at the tourism industry here, including the marketing, and saw there wasn’t a whole lot of representation,” she says. “People from away might not be inclined to visit Nova Scotia or know the history because they don’t see themselves represented.”

Plans for the future

And though currently only a side business for her, Boudreau says being recently featured in a NY Times article has brought a lot of traffic to the site and puts her one step closer to her dream of turning her attention to the company in a full-time way.

“One of my wine tours last year sold out before I could even post about it, and it was all local residents,” she says.

And in creating experiences — including hikes, boat cruises, and wine tours, Boudreau says it’s also about working with other Black-owned businesses. As part of a June hike package, she’ll be working with a Black-owned outdoor recreation business, Different Route, to also provide a healthy meal.

“To be able to curate experiences that specifically target people of African descent, having that space for us to connect and just have fun, is something that holds a lot of value, and people want that,” she says. “We have a rich history in this province, but we also just want to show people enjoying themselves as well.”

For more information or to purchase event tickets, visit https://elevateandexploreblackns.squarespace.com/

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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