In Beijing to promote British Columbia's business interests in China, B.C. Tourism Minister Pat Bell spent Tuesday night doing damage control instead.
He offered a mea culpa to federal counterparts for pasting them with a mess of his own ministry's making, and he apologized to constituents in B.C. who were offended by that same "unfortunate" mistake.
The problem began with a government document sent to B.C. businesses last week, offering them detailed instructions on how to attract Chinese tourists. That paper, detailing Tourism BC's China Strategy, cautioned that B.C. tourist operators are forbidden to market B.C. as a destination for gamblers or gay tourists.
Compounding the error, Mr. Bell initially defended the statement by explaining to reporters on Monday that the prohibition was Ottawa's fault – that it was negotiated as part of a pact that conferred Approved Destination Status on Canada by China in June, 2010.
"The information I was provided yesterday – that it was part of an agreement between the central government in China and our federal government – is in fact not correct," Mr. Bell said Tuesday. "It is not included in the approved destination status agreement, nor is it reflected in any other agreements between the Chinese government and the Canadian government."
"I have asked that passage be removed and the document be thoroughly reviewed, and I want to make sure that anyone who was offended by that passage, that I personally apologize to them ... I intend to take serious action to make sure it doesn't happen again."
The Tourism BC China Strategy states that tourism operators seeking to market their services in China must agree to "prohibit the promotion of casinos, gambling and gay tourism, per the China National Tourism Administration." The document said the policy is in alignment with the Canadian Tourism Commission. Commission officials did not return calls Tuesday, and a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs refused comment, referring all questions to the B.C. government.
Mr. Bell said he is still trying to uncover how the misinformation came to be included in his ministry's document. He said, however, that China is probably not the right market to exploit Vancouver's well-known niche market as a gay-friendly destination for tourists.
"I always think it makes sense for people to understand what the right marketing initiatives might be and what would be attractive as a marketing position in foreign countries ... But to state it as a matter of law versus an area of appropriateness is a completely different thing."
Spencer Chandra Herbert, the B.C. New Democratic Party tourism critic, said he was grateful to receive an e-mail from Mr. Bell early Tuesday apologizing for the affair.
Mr. Chandra Herbert said the B.C. government still needs to explain how that passage came to be written into the guidebook. More worrisome, he added, is how far the B.C. government seems willing to go to appease China as it seeks to gain more market access to the fast-growing economy.
"From what I have seen so far, they have glossed over the human rights challenge in China and we need to address that," he said.
The B.C. New Democrats have also pushed for trade with China despite its human rights record, and Mr. Chandra Herbert was careful not to criticize the government for the trade mission, which is mostly focused on forestry and other commodities, international education, and attracting investment dollars to B.C.
"China is a big player in the world scene," he said. "But we have to stand up for Canadian values wherever we go in the world."