A new study on the economic benefits of outdoor recreation on Crown land in Alberta forecasts a significant potential to the provincial economy.
The study conducted by the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta (TIAA) found there was $376 million in spending on outdoor equipment and accessories, with outdoor recreation contributing $2.8 billion to the gross domestic product of the province.
“This is a huge contributor, a huge generator of employment and economic activity. As we look as a province, it’s the kind of activity we want to encourage and sustainable, outdoor recreation seems to check a lot of those boxes,” said Darren Reeder, TIAA board advisor.
“It’s lighter on the landscape, it doesn't require billions of dollars of built infrastructure to support the lives and livelihoods of people. I think what it does is really cause people to look and celebrate the heritage and cultural dimensions of the regions they live in. It's one of the most sustainable and desirable forms of economic development we could encourage on Crown lands as we look to the future.”
Reeder said outdoor recreation could vary from ski hills, trail development, resorts, spas, hot springs, but an emphasis on infrastructure renewal is needed.
He noted other provinces and countries have policy frameworks, the closest being British Columbia but Alberta largely lacks the cohesive structure.
“The real impediments, and there are a number of them, but one of them is the province really doesn't know what business they're in as it relates to encouraging tourism investment,” he said.
“What we've seen over the years is countless examples of people with intentions to do things in Alberta end up going to B.C. because there's a clear more predictable policy framework in which to make decisions. We need a whole of government approach to wanting to build this economy, and we need to align the objectives of tourism, which falls under the Ministry of Jobs, Economy and Innovation and those of Alberta Environment and Parks.”
According to the study, 1.5 per cent of employment – or 36,000 full-time equivalent jobs – in Alberta is based on outdoor recreation. It also leads to $551 million in tax revenue and comprises 0.8 per cent of the province's GDP.
The bulk of the spending, according to the study, is on gas, accommodation, food and beverages, equipment and activity fees.
The report makes six recommendations to help grow the outdoor recreation economy. The first would see a unified and coordinated voice for the outdoor recreation sector, while a supportive Crown land policy needs to be established and increased investment in infrastructure is required.
The final three recommendations call for a complete inventory of Crown land outdoor recreation resources, collecting data and the creation of an office solely dealing with outdoor recreation.
“We need a lens on outdoor recreation,” Reeder said. “A lot of other places in the world have actually established offices of outdoor recreation to say we understand across the whole of government, there is a need to look at this as an economic agenda and we need to get in this business so we can attract that investment.”
During COVID-19, people flocked to the outdoors across the province. Provincial and national parks saw visitation significantly increase, particularly in Kananaskis Country, where more than five million people visited.
“The opportunity to connect with nature during COVID rewired some people to seek more time in nature,” Reeder said. “It’s also a reminder that in those areas that are popular and people have discovered during COVID, that there are some examples of where the lack of supporting infrastructure, things as simple as washrooms, don't leave the landscape in a better state than when people arrived.”
The study was launched in the spring and completed over the course of five months, which involved a comprehensive survey.
Previous studies had been finished in the past, but only looked at specific types of outdoor recreation, Reeder said.
Crown land is part of the protected parks and lands under the Public Lands Act and makes up about 60 per cent of the province or nearly 40 million hectares.
The lands can serve a multitude of purposes from outdoor recreation to helping conservation or exercising Indigenous treaty rights, tourism and resource-based industries.
Reeder said TIAA has been advocating for an examination of the economic impact of outdoor recreation on Crown land. They released a report last year – Call to Action Report: Recommendations to Accelerate the Recovery, Sustainable Growth and Resilience of Alberta’s Visitor Economy – as part of an overall strategy.
The last provincial budget set an ambitious goal of doubling the tourism economy in Alberta to $20 billion a year by 2030.
Invest Alberta, a Crown corporation dedicated to attracting investment to the province, has stated tourism contributes about $8 billion annually in revenue and more than 36 million visitors.
A 2018 Statistics Canada Travel Survey of Residents of Canada study echoed those numbers with $8.2 billion spent on tourism and 35.2 million visits.
Travel Alberta estimates there were roughly 68,800 tourism-based jobs in Alberta during 2018 and roughly 20,000 tourism-related businesses.
While tourism helps people see some of the beautiful areas Canada has to offer, the province also collects a hefty levy on revenues earned by hotels and other lodgings. In 2019, the Alberta government received $89 million from a hotel levy. They were estimating to collect $92 million in 2020, but only received $25 million following an abatement during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow the struggling businesses keep the revenue.
Though tourists have still trickled into the Bow Valley and increased vaccinations have brought a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not expected the levy will return to $92 million until 2023-24.
“Our first message would be if we're serious about growing this industry, then what we need is the full application of the Alberta tourism levy to be dedicated to Travel Alberta for the upcoming 2022-23 budget set at a pre-COVID-19 level to assist with the recovery effort," Reeder said.
“We're saying if we want to be in this business, and consider this an effective and responsible use of Crown land, then we need to get in the business.”