"In the early 20th century, New Brunswick was a very big deal. . . . But over the decades, New Brunswick slipped back into relative obscurity." This how the largest travel book guide publisher in the world, Lonely Planet, begins its introduction to our province, noting most travellers simply drive-through the province.
The problem is for most Canadians - never mind those from outside our - borders - New Brunswick is the dark matter on the map of the country. Dark matter makes up much of the universe, but it cannot be directly observed as it emits no light or energy. Canadians know were here, but they just can't see us, even as they traverse the four lanes that whisk them from Quebec and Maine to the Confederation Bridge or the welcome centre at the Nova Scotia border.
It's no wonder. Our newest welcome centre, just off the four lane, bringing travellers into New Brunswick at St. Stephen, is astonishingly non-descript. If you can see past the signage for the American fast food restaurants, the Irving station and convenience store, you'll spot a big question mark - no New Brunswick logo or sign - just a giant question mark, subtitled Visitor Information. I kid you not.This is how we are branding New Brunswick at our newest government visitor information center.
At a recent community meeting in my riding, constituents gave voice to a concern shared by many about our lack-lustre efforts to promote New Brunswick and give our visitors a memorable experience. I could dine out on the money I'd make if I had a loonie for every time someone has asked why we can't have TV commercials like those produced by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
To be fair, the good folks at the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture have created an excellent tourism website and have devoted much attention to create an on-line presence for New Brunswick. When you google New Brunswick, their site comes up on the first page, but so does the Lonely Planet reference and a CBC story about New Brunswick being the only province with a shrinking population.
Every last one of us knows the potential for tourism in our province is huge, but mostly untapped. The provincial government has included tourism in its growth strategy, but we have to generate some heat and light for it succeed.
We need to effectively brand New Brunswick to shine through the dark matter that obscures us from view for most Canadians. And we need to create tourism infrastructure and services that actually encourage tourism. Both of these requirements go beyond the capacity of the Department of Tourism to deliver by itself, and require a long view.
The St. John River Valley scenic drive, for example, is wonderfully scenic, but feels like the land that time forgot as the four-lane propels visitors through region. The pavement has been neglected, there are few services along the road, no scenic turnouts, no tourist infrastructure besides King's Landing, and no promotion of Woodstock, Fredericton or Gagetown as destinations. In a word, the drive would be bleak if it weren't for the majestic views.
Our cultures, our food, our craft beer and ciders, our artists, and our history are all things that visitors speak glowingly about when they come across them, but too often we fail to make it easy, or attractive for such encounters to occur.
The new performing arts centre planned for Fredericton provides a unique opportunity to provide a tourism anchor for the region if we created a summer festival of musical theatre along the lines of the Charlottetown Festival. Audiences could experience our cultures, our music, and our history from theatrical productions based on iconic New Brunswick stories. This would create opportunities for our playwrights, our composers, musicians and actors. Visitors could build their vacations around the summer festival.
Opportunities abound across the province to significantly increase tourism, but it requires that government make this a priority, invest in infrastructure and services, and work with our regions to achieve this goal.
New Brunswick is one of the best kept secrets in the country, but to let our fellow Canadians in on the secret requires creativity, collaboration and some pluck. Fundamentally, we need to believe in ourselves to make this work. Those were the ingredients that led to our decision to unite with Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada to create a country 150 years ago. That's what went into Louis Robichaud's social equality program 50 years ago. Compared to those revolutionary changes, with the right leadership, turning New Brunswick into a tourist destination should be a cakewalk.
David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party and the MLA for Fredericton South.
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