Monday, March 1, 2010

Will U.S. Passport Price Increases Affect Us?

Recent news that the Unites States is increasing passport fees by as much as 35% is creating a topic for discussion around the impact this will have on travel to Canada.

My take on it? Yes and No. Given the unprecedented challenges facing the tourism industry in North America over the past 18 months, from poor weather, at par dollar, slow economy and so forth, this is just another little speed bump we have to address.

For border communities that rely on U.S. day trippers, lower income and middle income families, the answer is Yes. It will affect their visitation. For Thunder Bay, only 19% of our 94 000 U.S. visitors to the city were day trippers. Because the nearest U.S. community is 90 minutes away, we don't anticipate this will have a large impact.

However, we're in the business of finding solutions, not bemoaning challenges. If all we do is complain, we'll fail.

The reality is that over 1.3 million new passports were issued in our four key U.S. Midwest markets of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois in 2009. Over 7 million passports have been issued in those four states in the past 5 years and over 11 million currently have passports in those states. Remember that U.S. passports are good for 10 years so, for the 7 million who got passports in the past 5 years in those key states, there should be no immediate concerns related simply to passports.

Remember, in 2009, when U.S. travel to Canada was down 9.2%, we were only down 1.6%. We were, in fact, up 1% in June and July (the first two months of the new passport requirements at land crossings) and 12.5% up in September. Much of this performance can be attributed to a shift in marketing into the U.S. markets that was much more targeted to specific adventure groups, groups that research indicated would still travel during tough economic times. This wasn't just limited to our efforts but many of our partners, the Province and regional travel associations as well.

People who get passports are generally business or avid adventure travellers or both. Educated and avid travelers are our target markets. People who travel possess a passion to explore, to learn new things, meet new people and place a high value on the experience. They continue to exist and our task remains to make sure we maintain or develop the experiences they seek, deliver value and quality and to market this effectively to them.

The guy or gal who never leaves his or her house and complains about having to drive across town (among other things) doesn't likely travel and will likely never need nor want a passport. He or she are not the market we work to attract.

Our efforts over the past two years have focused more on avid enthusiasts looking for a trophy experience. It's important that we all realize that there are a number of these trophy experiences that we own in this region- Outdoors such as angling, hunting and sustainable silent wilderness experiences, the Lake Superior Circle tour and iconic sport tourism events. For people passionate about their pursuits, the additional $35 every 10 years on a passport is not a deterrence. If your driver's licence went up the equivalent of $3.50 every year, would you stop driving? Probably not.

The other element in all of this is the pursuit of new markets. With the prevalence of the Internet, its never been so easy to reach out to avid travel markets globally. While we can continue to invest in growing existing best bet close haul markets, we must also allocate our resources further afield to reach the avid that does not mind driving a little further or even flying to find their experience. We've seen growth in European markets locally as well as spikes from non traditional U.S. markets such as Texas, Florida and California.

We have some of the most spectacular natural environment in North America and some of the best coastal driving, angling and wilderness paddling at our doorstep and we should never lose our confidence in it. Maintaining that confidence, knowing our consumers needs and delivering on value, will be our key to attracting new markets and overcoming challenges to the industry environment.

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