Every now and then, it’s great to get away from daily routine and familiar surroundings to gain some new perspectives. A recent trip to France gave some insights into what generates the tourism economy. It’s not that difficult to figure out what tourists want: Just look at what they line up for.
Take museums in Paris. Apparently there’s a shortage of good art in the world, which for many cynics of contemporary art is no surprise. I was warned that lineups at the Louvre are nasty, but that they are much shorter at the Musée d’Orsay just across the river. It’s Paris’s best-kept secret.
The secret is out. The morning we arrived at the Musée d’Orsay, there was a crowd of more than 500 standing outside on the plaza, waiting to get in the door. The 12-euro entrance fee was not high enough to deter these desperate art patrons. They were willing to wait a couple of hours in line on top of the admission fee.
Tourists stand in line for more than just art. They’ll stand in line to buy stuff, too. Galeries Lafayette, the famous department store in Paris, makes our high-end retailers look like convenience stores. The queues weren’t quite as long as those at the Musée d’Orsay, but they did add to the total “cost” of buying a Hermès scarf or Dior bag.
The queue to go up the Eiffel Tower was a nightmare of its own; we took our pictures from the bottom looking up.
Lineups indicate what global tourists want to see and do – and they will pay big bucks to do it. Culture, shopping, entertainment, experiences: There is a huge global demand for these things. Haven’t the crazed mobs at the Louis Vuitton flagship store on the Champs Élysées heard that the global economy is on the skids? High-end tourism seems to be recession proof.
Tourism marketing specialists in Canada are well aware of the dilemma. How can we become an international destination when we don’t have the museums, the history, the sidewalk cafés, or the miles of shopping that make up Paris? There must be a strategy to tap into the gold mine of all those tourists standing in line in Paris.
Play to our strengths? Sounds reasonable enough, but Canada has more fly-fishing, whale-watching and pristine forests than there appears to be global demand. I’ve never seen 500 people line up to rent camping gear (although the parking lots in Banff and Niagara Falls can be daunting). Our beautiful surroundings are certainly an asset, but let’s be honest: The tourism market for these experiences are limited.
The onus is on Canada to find its own niche in the tourism world. We need to build some merchandising brand names in our own country that will make it a destination on its own. Why would an international visitor go shopping in Yorkville when all the merchandise is French, Italian or American? Why not just go to Paris, Milan or Los Angeles?
We need to attract and foster a growing concentration of Canadian artists, designers and creators. In a Paris bookstore, I noticed a display of gorgeous books on architecture. It was a series of books highlighting contemporary building design in several countries: France, the U.S., Holland, Brazil, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Australia and even Mexico. (Mexico!) Where was Canada’s book? There wasn’t one, and that’s a shame. It perpetuates the myth we are all log cabins and igloos.
It is only a matter of concentrated effort to turn Canada into a “must-see” destination for the global tourist. Another thing I learned on vacation was that all the international people we met along the way – French, Danes, Brits, New Zealanders – certainly seem to like Canada well enough. All they need now is a reason to visit.