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B.C. communities rethink visitor centres as tourists switch to smartphones

This is a photo of the mobile tourism centre in Tofino. Photo provided by Tourism Tofino.

As mobile technology allows tourists to not only make bookings on their smartphones, but to also get instant reviews by fellow travellers, the future of visitor information centres is in question.

For decades the centres – which range in style from quaint roadside log cabins to architect-designed structures with soaring windows and plunging waterfalls – have played a key role in serving British Columbia's $13-billion tourism industry.

But across the province the number of visitors going to centres is trending down, dropping by 9 per cent this year alone, and some communities have begun to constrain or close operations.

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In Kelowna last week, city council backed off on plans to build a 16,000-square foot tourism facility in a downtown waterfront park because of strong public opposition. Instead of the grand "destination" centre proposed initially, council is now looking at a much smaller "pedestrian oriented" facility.

But even that downsizing isn't going far enough for some.

"The question shouldn't be whether a new tourist information centre should be built in Kelowna's City Park. A more relevant question – given the explosion of electronic media – is whether a tourist centre is now needed anywhere in the city," columnist Chuck Poulsen wrote on the Okanagan news site, Castanet.

In Prince George, one of two visitor information centres was closed this year, after Wendy Nordin, manager of policy initiatives for the city, stated in a report to council that the run-down facility at the intersection of Highways 16 and 97 probably wasn't worth refurbishing.

She wrote that "the number of visitors served at this facility is dropping … [and] research indicates that … travellers in BC are increasingly turning to web-based platforms to find the basic information they are looking for."

In her analysis, Ms. Nordin said visitor centres can still play a role – but communities need to rethink how they interact with tourists.

Tourism Tofino is trying to do just that. The seaside town on the West Coast of Vancouver Island closed one of its two visitor centres after walk-in traffic fell by 50 per cent in one year, replacing it with a 1966 Volkswagen Microbus that has surfboards strapped on top and a team of chatty travel information specialists inside. Throughout the summer, the van can be found parked at beaches or outside local businesses.

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Lynda Kaye, a spokesperson for Tourism Tofino, said the van has been "a huge success."

"No matter where it's parked it will draw people to it," she said.

Ms. Kaye said Tofino redesigned its website to respond to soaring mobile use (up 400 per cent since 2011) but also kept one of its traditional "bricks and mortar" visitor centres. That building remains open on the highway into town and the community is very happy with the job it does.

She said while tourists do exhaustive online homework before going on a trip, "once they are in town I think there's still meaning behind coming to a place and talking to somebody who lives in the area and who is knowledgeable about it."

Margaret McCormick, an executive director with Destination BC, a Crown agency that promotes tourism, agreed saying while some of the provinces 100 visitor centres are closing or downsizing, they are not about to vanish from the landscape.

She said the centres are "shifting and changing" to respond to the needs of better informed travellers, but they remain important because they are staffed by people who have intimate community knowledge.

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"The local kind of 'know' is really one of the main reasons why visitor centres continue to be a valuable resource," she said.

Peter Williams, director of the centre for tourism policy research at Simon Fraser University, said visitor centres will continue to have relevance if they are part of a larger strategy and are providing the local information that travellers likely won't find online.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


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