It's National Tourism Week and the local tourism sector is excited about what the future holds for the Cochrane area.
The rebound of the industry from the major downturn during the pandemic has outpaced expectations. According to the latest tourism economics baseline forecast, Alberta’s tourism expenditures are expected to return to $10 billion in 2023, a year earlier than previously forecasted.
According to Stats Canada, tourism supports communities in all corners of the province. In 2019, tourists spent $2.9 billion in the Calgary region, $2.4 billion in the Edmonton region, $2.2 billion in the Canadian Rockies, $1.15 billion in central Alberta, $767 million in southern Alberta, and $539 million in northern Alberta.
The recent Alberta budget has seen a tripling of the funding provided for promoting and developing tourism in the province.
"What's notable about that increase is it has been accompanied by a mandated increase in the role of Travel Alberta as an agency," Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin explained during a March interview on the Alberta budget. "So whereas before Travel Alberta was just a marketing organization--they invested dollars into marketing and promotions and attracting visitors to Alberta--we've expanded their mandate to include destination development. Now, Travel Alberta is involved in partnering with budding entrepreneurs and experiences to help develop destinations and develop new experiences."
Oucharek says local tourism partners have been exploring the opportunities provided by the new funding streams.
"They have created several different programs that are providing funding not only for destination marketing organizations like Cochrane Tourism, but also for individual tour operators in three different levels with incubator grants, innovative grants, and growth grants.," Oucharek explains. "This year, we had over 10 of our local partners apply for funding. That funding is anywhere from $75,000 to half a million dollars, so there are going to be some big things happening in the Cochrane area."
During Small Business Week last October, Oucharek was joined by Cameron Spence, Travel Alberta's manager for Destination Development Foothills and Canadian Rockies, to lead a session on Travel Alberta's expanded direction and the introduction of the new Cochrane-Sundre-Rocky Mt.House tourism development zone.
Cochrane Tourism has been the lead organization assisting Travel Alberta and the consulting team in developing the regional plan. Oucharek says they reviewed a draft of the regional plan in late March and it will come out shortly to showcase what can happen here.
While here, Spence was impressed with the number of people attending the session from across the new TDZ but also took the time to observe how local residents engage with what are viewed as potential tourism opportunities.
"As we move forward, you really need to take into account what residents think tourism is and how it can be a positive force within a community, so I was interested in how residents are recreating, what are they doing, what are they enjoying," he said in an October 2022 interview.
"I always feel, for instance, if residents aren't using the downtown of a community, it's unlikely visitors will. If residents are enjoying this area and all of the things it can provide, whether it's outdoor recreation or culinary experiences, then this provides a really strong base to continue to build products and experiences for both domestic and international visitors."
Outdoor activities are popular here, including river tours, biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, camping, and Indigenous experiences. This zone primarily draws day visitors with the opportunity to expand international and long-haul Canada visitation by linking export-ready itineraries between Calgary, the Central Rockies, and David Thompson zone.
At that session, Oucharek spoke of the opportunities being created for the zone by its proximity to the mountain region. She says it allows for a natural loop tour
"So, people can go up and around and still see the national parks, but do something different, and that's very exciting."
There's been an expansion of tourism products in the Cochrane area, something that has been a major focus of Cochrane Tourism in recent years. It complements their tourism mentorship program.
"We actually just finished the third cohort of our tourism mentorship program. We have eight businesses in the program this year and those eight businesses have finished the program and we are working on the launch phase of new products that are going to be coming out over the next three to six months down the line."
"We saw that we need to do product development because in order for people to come here, they need to spend four to six hours," Oucharek explained last October. "If they spend four to six hours here, they're going to spend money in our community, and if that money gets spent in our community for every dollar that's spent that multiples 10 times, so our community will really benefit from that visitor economy. It's revenue without growth."
Monthly scavenger hunt for swag
Oucharek says right now Cochrane Tourism had a monthly scavenger hunt through its Explore Cochrane app. Should you discover all four clues, you can drop by the Tourist Information Centre located in The Station, 350 Railway St. W. receive some Explore Cochrane swag.
"Plus it's a great way to play in your backyard and maybe find some places that you've never seen before," she says.