Exclusive interview: Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation Cindy Ady

For this issue, the CBJ team was eager to have the opportunity to get to the heart of the tourism industry in Alberta—so we contacted the Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation, Cindy Ady.

Minister Ady was happy to help tell us why Alberta has such a thriving industry, and why all Canadians should make a trip sometime. Minister Ady was elected to her third term as Member of the Legislative Assembly for Calgary-Shaw on March 3, 2008, and was sworn in as Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation on March 13, 2008. Here’s what she has to say about the tourism business, “staycations” and experiential travel.

CBJ: How did the recent downturn affect the tourism industry for Alberta?

Cindy Ady: Everyone knows there has been a recession, and there is no question we have felt the effects of that. But we are fortunate in Alberta because we are always a destination market, so we have felt effects but not to the extent of, say, Vancouver.

CBJ: How did you minimize the impact of that slowdown?

CA: We have tried to mitigate the effects with our “staycation” campaign. About 50 per cent of our tourism has been Albertans moving around the province, and we ran an intensive campaign reminding people about what there is to offer. About 70 per cent of those we surveyed have seen the campaign since we began running it, and what we are really seeing is a renewed activity of Albertans in their own province. They are staying closer to home and are also being reminded of what we have to offer.

CBJ: What initiatives or campaigns are you running now?

CA: We are running a few different programs. In “Plan for Parks” we committed to certain things, one of which is looking for business opportunities. We are developing a business private sector piece that levels the playing field for businesses. In our contract we are saying that incoming businesses’ standards have to match [the province’s]. This means we have a large land base and a lot of opportunity, so come to us with projects and we will take a look. We are starting to see some early returns on that now.

We are offering all kinds of experiential travel. People want experience when they travel. For example, in Dinosaur Provincial Park, they are doing some great things. You can go there and go out into the park and you can see dinosaur bones sticking out of the mountain. They are offering an exclusive type of programming where you can go with your family or group and have a weekend with a palaeontologist and go on a real dinosaur dig! They are doing “glamping” (glam camping) next year, for those wannabe outdoorsmen like me, where you go camping but with a lot of amenities. They are also offering a sunset piece for photographers, who can do photography in the badlands, fabulous photography. They are looking at a lot of experimental niche marketing.

CBJ: I know that that type of travel can get pricey, what about programs that appeal to the economical traveller?

CA: We are one of the few provinces that do not have gate fees or day use fees. Within one hour, all Albertans are within a provincial or national park. So there is great access.

You have probably heard about our campground reservation system which is making it a lot easier for people to actually access the parks.

CBJ: We can imagine that the reservation system is making it much easier to camp.

CA: Yes it is. The campground reservation system has already had 178,000 reservations at this point in time, and currently has 141,000 account holders. Our campground operators tell us that typically when weekdays would have been slow, they are now managing to keep them filled, so they are pleased with how consistent reservations have become.

CBJ: How has it changed the Alberta camping experience?

CA: It’s helped people explore the park differently. Because it is so state-of-the-art, you can go to the site and do a 360° turn and see what the amenities are and where. Other provinces have been looking to us now because we have been able to take technology and step it up. We look at the opportunity for more technology even more.

The next generation of that system will tell you what is going on in the general vicinity…whatever it is that will enhance your vacation. For now, people are loving and using the system and are finding it is providing opportunity that before they didn’t have.

I think the population was ready for this. I was just glad we were able to kick it up and move it. Most people have access to a computer, even seniors are computer literate. However, you can still go the traditional method and call and access by phone, which I think people still appreciate.

CBJ: What’s the next step for this technology?

CA: We are going to continue to expand the reservation system. We have been receiving national awards, and most recently gained the attention of ESRI Canada, a leading provider of GIS solutions, who gave us an award. We are also going to add more campgrounds.

CBJ: What about next steps for the Ministry?

CA: I am bringing the “Plan for Parks” back into the legislature and we are going to pass legislature this fall. Embedded in it are plans for private opportunity. We have created the rules for engagement; I’ve created the rules that will allow those conversations. We are saying to private operations, ‘where can you bring us more product?’

We are going to continue to upgrade the parks, having put $250 million into upgrading them in the past five years. We are about 75 per cent of the way there. I have also tested the park guys and tourism officers to stay innovative and to look to their markets. One of the things we are noticing is people are going to the mountains and spending a day in the Badlands, but then they are drawn back and will return to spend a week in the Badlands. People want to camp but they want things to do while they camp, such as white water raft, horseback etc., so we’re working on that.

We think we are on the right road between conserving and letting people appreciate [the parks]. We are looking at a lot of different opportunities.

CBJ: Can you speak briefly about housing a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

CA: We have five of the 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, and we are very proud of that. A UNESCO destination is the UN saying this is a special place in the world. I know people who only visit UNESCO sites, so for us, that is an important piece that comes with responsibility. We have to work hard to preserve it and to protect it properly.

Our final key message to Canadians: Alberta is the most beautiful place in the world, and we have some of the nicest people here. The number one thing tourists say to me is that our cities and environments are so clean. Those are our three things: Alberta’s beautiful, the people are nice, and its clean. If you want a clean and rustic environment, come to Alberta.