Tourism, a vanguard industry for small communities

Great Sandhills. Photo by Tourism Saskatchewan - Dave Reede Photography

How rural locations can foster economic growth through exploration

Whether they realize it or not, small communities in Saskatchewan are sitting on a potential goldmine–their tourism offerings.

According to a Statistics Canada report on national tourism in Q1 of 2023, tourism spending totaled over $20 billion—an increase of 2.6 per cent since last quarter. This increase is a result of domestic tourism spending by Canadian residents, the study states. Saskatchewan uses tourism as a key economic driver, bringing in over $2 billion through travel spending every year according to Tourism Saskatchewan.

Though these numbers might seem unrealizable, experts in the tourism industry have seen small communities thrive economically and developmentally through tourism offerings.

What’s at stake?
David Larson, business development manager at Discover Saskatoon, has seen the effects of tourism throughout the prairies and beyond. Most notably, tourism can have a “snowballing effect” for rural areas. “One of the biggest factors is that [tourism] creates job opportunities. So in some communities, they work on tourism experiences and tourism offerings, they create jobs, which can also sometimes create infrastructure as a business develops. That’s been a positive thing, because it’s something that wasn’t there [before].”

In his experience, Larson noticed that his act of creating an opportunity that was not present before, opens a myriad of opportunities for a community to pursue new avenues of growth through the tourism sector. These creative moments build a community’s “visitor economy” which then can be leveraged to entice travelers.

Jonathan Potts, the CEO of Tourism Saskatchewan, notes the same possibility for exponential growth for small communities. “You can look across the province at [communities] that have really done a great job of developing a tourism industry and developing a number of different complementary experiences that attract people and keep them in a community for a longer period of time. And, frankly, bring people to communities that they might not otherwise have considered previously.”

With growth potential like this on the table, small communities might wonder how they can take their share of the pie and maybe even put themselves on the map. The good news? They definitely can with the help of a critical ally: small businesses.

A key partnership
In an interview with Industry West, Potts estimates that over 95 per cent of all businesses in Saskatchewan fall under the small-medium size category. With small businesses being found across the province and being key economic drivers in small communities, they need to be a critical component of any tourism plan. However, how do communities as a whole partner with these economic players? Here are a few ways Larson and Potts have seen fruitful partnerships develop.

Start with a conversation
For communities that are just opening their doors to tourism, things can be difficult to begin as people are understandably resistant to change. Larson recommends open and honest conversations as the springboard. “It’s not an easy thing to change people’s minds. I think it’s an openness and starting a conversation that is probably the big thing.” For business owners and community members Larson recommends networking tirelessly and being outgoing—just like you would if you were marketing your business offerings.

In a similar vein, Potts echoes Larson’s sentiments, “If people are willing to work together and see the bigger picture and recognize that if they pull in the same direction, they might be able to create something unique.”

Finding the spark
Though the conversation may be the medium of communication, the heart behind any tourism collaboration needs to beat with an entrepreneurial rhythm, Potts advises. “There’s got to be an entrepreneurial spirit. It might just be a spark from one or two people initially that see an opportunity, and recognize that there is something different or unique about their community that people would be willing to pay for and experience.”

Potts recalls a small community in southern Saskatchewan that put itself on the map because of the seeds planted by entrepreneurs that moved into the town. “Some entrepreneurs moved in, set up restaurants, coffee shops, and so forth. And suddenly it became a destination people wanted to go to.” From this initial jumping-off point, the town began to develop an openness to adjust the fabric of their community and nurture a willingness to open their doors to more opportunities.

The result? Maple Creek is now a well-known tourist hotspot in the south of the province.

Not just a backyard
Though small businesses are a critical component of tourism growth in rural communities, just as important is the ability not to miss what is under one’s nose, reminds Potts. “It’s just having that mindset to recognize that what may seem common to somebody here in Saskatchewan or the prairies might be as valuable as gold to somebody [else].”

Larson heartily agrees that when it comes to small communities that might be feeling their location is simply a backyard—not a destination–“there’s a consumer out there that would be keen to explore it.”