Canada's red-and-white tourism branding could turn a shade greener in the coming years with the legalization of recreational marijuana opening the door to cannabis-based travel businesses across the country.
Federal legislation for recreational use is still a year away, and many legal questions surrounding advertising and distribution remain, even with the government of Ontario clarifying some rules around marijuana sales on September 8. Nonetheless, companies in the cannabis sector are starting to develop tourism business plans, dreaming up everything from winery-style grow-op tours to weed-and-yoga retreats in the Rocky Mountains.
"A nation legalizes and the world pays attention," said Michael Eymer, chief executive of Colorado Cannabis Tours, a travel company based in Colorado that organizes marijuana-oriented trips in a number of U.S. states. Ahead of legalization, he's been eyeing British Columbia – long regarded as a centre for cannabis culture – and plans to offer dispensary and grow-op tours to cruise-ship passengers arriving in Vancouver starting next summer. "My instinct tells me that Vancouver will get the lion's share of cannabis tourism," he said.
Calgary native Darrin Zeer, who also lives in Colorado and runs marijuana-friendly yoga trips with his company, 420 Yoga Retreats, plans to start offering retreats in the Alberta Rockies next summer.
"We still have a bit of a grey cloud over us [in the United States] because federally it's illegal," Mr. Zeer said. "So the idea of Canada, in one fell swoop, becoming legal nationwide – companies are going to be so much more incentivized to start a business and feel confident that the federal government is not going to shut them down overnight."
It's too early to quantify the potential impact marijuana legalization could have on Canada's overall tourism numbers. Tourism industry organizations seem to be in wait-and-see mode, with Destination Canada, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and the Tourism Industry Association of BC all indicating that they're waiting on more defined legislation before focusing research on the impact of marijuana.
Other jurisdictions, however, have been tracking the impact of legalization, and have seen largely positive movement. In Colorado, the global leader in legal marijuana tourism, 15 per cent of visitors participated in a "marijuana-related activity" in 2016, according to research commissioned by the Colorado Tourism Office. Five per cent of tourists cited the availability of legal marijuana in Colorado as their main reason for visiting the state.
Colorado data from 2015 showed that 23 per cent of visitors were positively influenced in their decision to visit the state by the availability of marijuana, although 14 per cent said marijuana had a negative impact on their decision.
In Canada, people are already beginning to take advantage of increasingly liberal attitudes toward marijuana, even ahead of legalization.
There are about 20 Canadian properties listed on budandbreakfast.com, an Airbnb-style property listing website focused on cannabis-friendly accommodations.
"Generally it's a joint on the pillow, or a gram by the side of the bed, or some people are doing infused mints," said CEO Sean Roby, whose company lists more than 1,000 properties worldwide.
"We do have some bud and breakfasts that are all inclusive, where you wake up in the morning and there's cannabis blueberry pancakes and cannabis hollandaise sauce."
He expects the number of Canadian "bud and breakfast" listings to skyrocket following recreational legalization. And this, he claims, could provide Canadian property owners who are already listing on accommodation-sharing sites another avenue to make money.
"If someone has their place listed on multiple sharing economy sites, such as HomeAway, Airbnb, they might be at a 60-per-cent occupancy rate. Generally we get them up to 90 or 100 per cent, because there is no shoulder season with cannabis," he said.
"Our average booking is around $400 and it's for three nights, so generally we're getting about a $1,200 average per booking. It's generally a fairly high-end traveller."
As with other aspects of the emerging Canadian cannabis industry, however, there are legal unknowns that could trip up the nascent tourism industry. For example, the announcement from the Ontario government on September 8 that it is limiting sales to LCBO-run stores will make it illegal to sell product on-site during winery-style tours.
Maxim Zavet, president of Emblem Cannabis Corp., a publicly traded licensed producer based in Paris, Ont., still plans to run public tours around the 100,000-square-foot facility his company is building. But the rules from the Ontario government could make it hard to attract would be grow-op tourists.
"Consumption of the product has to be in the equation in order to attract people," he said. "What's the point of a tour if it doesn't exit through the gift shop?"
Other provinces could still choose more liberal distribution laws. However, Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and expert on cannabis regulation warns that, "until you know more, you can't really talk about vacation stays at pot farms."
Given strict rules around marijuana advertising and relatively conservative attitudes toward things like public drinking, Prof. Young doesn't expect much of a tourism industry to develop around marijuana, at least for the first few years after legalization. "I don't see a lot occurring in an overt way, although maybe if we're one of the few jurisdictions where it's legal people will sort of drift here," he said.
"An important point, though, is that with each year legalization goes by and people realize the fabric of Canadian life isn't disintegrating, many restrictions could be removed and we might see more of an industry developing."