CEO’s Corner

Glacier Discovery Walk shows the way forward for Canadian tourism infrastructure.

This exciting new project in Alberta proved that the private sector can—and will—step up to the plate to invest substantially if the conditions are right.

You just can’t keep tourism out of the news. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to China last week drew the attention of headline-writers, particularly the launch of our new tourism campaign in that market and its importance to our industry’s future.

However, another announcement on Feb. 9, which flew under many people’s radar but bodes equally well, was the approval of the Glacier Discovery Walk project on the Icefields  Parkway in Jasper National Park, AB. I often hear that Canada needs new investments in tourism infrastructure, particularly in attractions. It’s been an age since we’ve seen such a large-scale private sector investment in a new attraction in a national park. Brewster Travel Canada has made the investment, and the end product promises to be spectacular. Kudos to the company for seeing the project through.

If you’re not familiar with the work, here’s how the Glacier Discovery Walk will take shape. The plan is to build a 400-metre interpretive boardwalk. The area will be fully accessible, including interpretive stations that highlight the Aboriginal history, ecology, geology, glaciology and social history of the region. The coup de grâce will be a glass-floored observation platform stretching 30 metres over the Sunwapta Valley. Not for the vertigo-challenged!

This project is rich in promise. The Glacier Discovery Walk will be just the type of exceptional and immersive experience to help Canada stand out globally. Our national parks with their wonderful natural beauty are one of our country’s main trump cards (Chinese travellers, for example, love them!) and this type of project can only draw more international visitors. They will be able to engage with the dramatic Albertan landscape in a way that was not previously possible.

In this case, private sector has showed conclusively that the investment interest is there when the conditions make sense. The Federal Tourism Strategy is a strong call to action for product development and investment. There have been other examples of substantial private-sector investment in tourism infrastructure around the country—the development at Le Massif de Charlevoix in Quebec and the Capilano Cliffwalk  in BC spring readily to mind—but cash on the table has been thin on the ground.

The environmental assessment around the Glacier Discovery Walk attracted a lot of attention, but the proposal passed the rigorous requirements for a development in a national park. Brewster proved that you can survive the glare of environmental scrutiny and come out the other end smiling. That was great to see, too.

The Honourable Peter Kent, Minister for the Environment, gave credit where it was due during his news conference last week. He commended Parks Canada and Brewster Travel Canada for their vision and collaboration in investing in and protecting one of the finest natural areas of the world.  

This project is a tribute to Canada’s natural beauty. It’s also a tribute to much-needed tourism innovation. We work in the fastest growing industry in the world, one that’s also the most competitive. With new investments like the Glacier Discovery Walk, Canada is poised to compete more successfully with our rivals for travellers’ attention.

What did you make of it all? Has Brewster shown the way forward? Can you think of other examples of similar projects underway in Canada or that are in the works? Or are there examples in other countries we could learn from? Do tell all; tweet them to me @CTCCEO or leave a note in the comments below.

Michele

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Comments

This gimmicky structure has no place in a National Park. Brewsters will now be able to charge visitors $25 for a great view of the Sunwapta River canyon - a view that was previously available for free at the Tangle Falls viewpoint. There are no close up glacier views, as the name would suggest - the toe of the Athabasca Glacier is 6 kilometers away and will be barely visible. This is a ridiculous project that received vigorous protest from Canadians who apparently have little say in how their National Parks - their birthright - are run. For shame.

I can't wait for the Glacier Discovery Walk will be finished. The design is gorgeous and it could be another tourist spot.

Unfortunately, Michele’s article doesn’t provide a complete picture of the facts and process behind the Glacier Discovery Walk.
First, the environmental assessment was not, as she claims, rigorous. Scientific rigor to assess impact on a wildlife population would require at least 1 – 2 years of on the ground research and would consider wildlife for several kilometres around the site; the four month study in a very limited geographic area that was conducted for the Brewster Environmental Assessment doesn’t meet those scientific standards. Furthermore, the results indicate that the impact on wildlife, particularly goats and sheep, cannot be known with certainty. The project should not have proceeded on those grounds.

Second, there is no social science evidence that Canadians want more man-made infrastructure in their National Parks. In fact, to the contrary, Parks Canada’s own user surveys show that a top priority for visitors along the Icefields Parkway is to enjoy the free pull-off viewpoints for the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Designations as the UNESCO World Heritage Status and National Geographic’s Top 10 Scenic Drives in the World were not based on having more infrastructure along the Icefields Parkway.

Finally, this development runs counter to Parks Canada legislation and policy requiring minimal infrastructure and prioritization of ecological integrity in any decisions about the park. Most concerning is that the Glacier Discovery Walk is but one example in Canada's National Parks of Parks Canada shifting their decision-making lens away from ecological integrity to economic factors which is not consistent with their legislated mandate to protect National Parks.

CPAWS supports efforts to draw more visitors to National Parks but those activities should focus on connecting people with nature in meaningful ways and should NOT be at the expense of ecosystems in the park.
Kelly Sloan - Executive Director
CPAWS - Northern Alberta

It's a sad thing to see the Canadian government spinning this story in every venue. More than 6,000 people made written submissions against the Glacier Discovery Walk - the most public engagement on any issue ever in a Canadian national park. More than 181,000 people signed an online petition against the proposal. There is no scientific baseline data for sensitive species in the project area - not even populations of the animals that will be affected. The sole rationale for the project is economic. This is Canada, not China. Parks Canada is required by law to protect Canadian species, places, and natural processes, not to attract global visitors. Those from afar will be coming to a tourist attraction at a viewpoint that used to have mountain goats but no longer does. Please see the following links for more accurate information on this development:

http://noglacierdiscoverywalk.ca/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/No-Glacier-Discovery-Walk/303101999751367

As a tourism operator near Banff National Park, I can only say that approval of this pathetic development in important wildlife habitat in Jasper National Park is just one more step leading to the ongoing destruction of our National Parks. Carving a publicly accessible area out of our parks to allow a commercial operator to charge visitors extra for enjoying the views that belong to us all is simply unacceptable and has nothing to do with sound or sustainable tourism development.
Unfortunately, it is in line with this government's policy of putting all development before the conservation of our environment and hertitage, no matter what the cost.
Ultimately, it is this kind of development / commercialisation, which will discourage visitors from coming to our National Parks. Banff has been overdeveloped to the point where visitors are avoiding it, so now it is time to deface Jasper Park as well! When will we ever learn?
Shame on CTC to lend their support to this kind of ill-conceived development.

This can only be a good thing for Jasper National Park, Alberta and for Canada as a whole. A great attraction fit for the 21st Century.

As a business person, tourism operator, downhill skier, and world traveler, I love our National Parks! But development needs to stay in the hands of Canadians, not foreign operators. I encourage economic development, but not at all costs. And not where American companies make decisions that impact our culture and environment! What do we sell next? Bad choice, Peter Kent!

Thanks Michelle, we appreciate the support of the Canadian Tourism Commission.