Fifteen years ago the NWT had a booming travel industry. Advertising was effective, targeted at trade and travel shows and European magazines. Fort Smith was flush with tourists, attracting close to 5000 road traffic visitors each summer.
But gradually the approach to NWT tourism was altered. The system was deemed inappropriate and scrapped. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater. NWT tourism promotion regressed. Visitor numbers crashed.
Meanwhile the focus in Fort Smith became “The Road to Fort Vermilion.” A “loop road” was seen as essential for successful tourism. No one seemed aware that Inuvik promoted itself as special because it is at the end of the road – and drew 9,000 visitors annually.
The Vermilion road was tantalizingly close, but obviously impossible, (after all, who was ever going to pay for it?) It distracted Fort Smith leaders for a decade – sucking energy and money.
Meanwhile, Fort Smith virtually stopped promoting itself – to the point today where the only marketing tool used is one small, nondescript pamphlet, placed at only some of the visitor centres along roads heading to the NWT, lost amid smart, eye-catching promotions from other communities.
The friendly staff of the 60th Parallel Border Information Centre who know nothing of the beautiful, historic community perched at the bottom of the amazing Slave River Rapids and the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park, typically recommend travellers take a left at the fork in the road at Enterprise – to visit Yellowknife, which of course everyone has heard of. That situation happens predictably each year, and only a few make that right turn.
Meanwhile Fort Smith is down to just over 1000 visitors a year.
Fort Smith has been busy planning for tourism, however. In the last twelve years three different tourism plans have been crafted by experts in the field. Each, in their own way, are excellent plans. They cost, together, roughly $120,000. None have ever been used.
Another new planning process has just been initiated in Fort Smith. It will cost an additional $41,000.
The tourism industry may not be doing well in Fort Smith, but tourism planning in the community is a booming business – for consultants.
There is one other Fort Smith tourism marketing campaign – for Paddlefest, the successful river event on the long weekend in early August. Impressive posters are found in information centres everywhere. Notably, all event organization and marketing is being done by volunteers with little or no support. Imagine how much more could be done with an event like that if some of the money spent for consultants to write plans was invested instead in administrative support for volunteers?!
The recent grand opening of the new 60th parallel information centre, the entry point of the Mackenzie Highway into the NWT is a step up for NWT tourism. The building design is sophisticated and the displays and story boards inside are striking.
The visitor centre in the Town of Valleyview, where the Alaska and Mackenzie Highways meet, is a funky place filled with memorabilia so tacky it is cool. The pair of ladies who run it are delightfully friendly. The Town of Peace River visitor centre is a picturesque old railway station that is like a small museum inside, filled with artifacts of days gone by. The one in High Level also has a large display of artifacts in a spacious and beautiful log building. But none compare to the entry point to the NWT where the impression is fresh, modern, and, well, downright classy.
The completion of the new NWT visitor centre is a feather in the cap of Tom Colosimo, the regional tourism officer in the South Slave. He not only fostered the architecture and interior graphic design of the building but also the giant new sign that is part of the package and is at once impressive and artistic and will surely become iconic in future NWT tourism promotions.
Colosimo is also responsible for the development of the series of impressive waterfall parks along the Hay River Gorge near Enterprise. In fact he has been the lead for creating quality tourism infrastructure in the South Slave Region for a decade.
He has done a few things for Fort Smith as well. The facilities at Queen Elizabeth Park are his responsibility and have been run successfully by a local family for a number of years. The service is friendly and professional and the place is clean, modern, pleasant and well run. The services and information there compensate somewhat for the chronic lack of any such offering by the Town of Fort Smith, which for over a decade has offered only marginal tourist welcoming facilities.
He is also responsible for the improvements to Mission Park in the heart of Fort Smith, what could be an outstanding tourism draw, were it ever developed. Mission Park also preserves an important part of Fort Smith history. In spite of his ongoing overtures, no effort by the Fort Smith Town Council, the Tourism Advisory Board or any local group has ever been made to bring Mission Park to life.
Just doing his job, you say? Okay, but it is being done well. The communities in the southern NWT are very lucky to have Tom Colosimo working diligently to develop a viable tourism industry on their behalf.