Untapped market
RWED's Handley says tourism offers most economic hope

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 28/98) - Tourism could be the North's greatest asset when it comes to renewable resources, NWT Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development deputy minister Joe Handley said.

"Why do more Canadians go to Nepal rather than the North? We are not marketing the North," he said.

Tourism is the greatest hope for small Northern communities, he said.

Even senior government people in Ottawa don't have basic knowledge about the NWT, he added.

"It's not their fault. It's ours. We haven't sold it."

Handley's comments come at a time when spending to promote tourism has been shrinking.

In 1997-98, it is estimated federal and territorial spending on tourism will amount to only $700,000 compared to $1.2 million a year earlier.

Handley spoke at the triennial Prospects North conference held last week in Yellowknife.

He pointed to a recent trip across the North that included several Canada environment ministers. They looked out the plane window and wanted to see animals like muskox, Handley said.

"We have wild animals, unique wildlife. We're the only North."

He even suggested what might be unthinkable to some -- combining tourists seeking natural experiences and hunting.

Handley said he knows of a polar-bear hunt which took along an ecotourist.

"There's nothing wrong with going hunting and taking a tourist with you."

And while Handley was optimistic about tourism, he was not too bullish on fishing and forestry.

Trees are harvested in the North then shipped south for processing. Then the North has to buy back the product.

"Why can't we produce our own finished lumber in the North?" he said.

On fishing, Handley said, "I think we're being suckered in a lot of ways."

He believes the North needs to find alternatives to commercial fishing. Sportfishing might generate a higher return for the resource, he suggested.

Although Handley did not refer directly to comments made by David Foot, co-author of Boom, Bust & Echo, for support, the deputy minister certainly could have.

Foot, Prospects North's opening guest speaker, said hunting is a growing activity. This conclusion is one of just many Foot made during his presentation on demographics.

There is business to be had in marketing certain kinds of outdoor recreation to the babyboomers.

Among a varied group of recreational activities, bird-watching is the surprise winner. Walking was another winner. Resting is also big.

"In an aging population, we move away from sports to recreation. This is why North America rediscovered the natural environment. Move over sports, here comes culture."

When companies look to market their widgets, they need to be aware of the demographics of their target audience.

Among the things babyboomers are looking for are quality and service.

"Waste their time and you won't get their business."

But for the North, where a huge percentage of the population is under 25, Foot said the challenges will be in education and employment.

"If a country does not provide jobs for its youth, they either leave or tear the country apart."

Wrapping up Prospects North was Michael Walker, executive director of the Fraser Institute.

Walker said those who think the North needs to balance economic freedom with human development are wrong.

Economic development is a prerequisite for human development.

Asked Thursday evening what the North can to do for more economic freedom, Walker, a well-known Canadian economist often called right wing, said, "In the NWT, most things offensive and irresponsible are federal policies."

The North needs to change its discussions with Ottawa on what Ottawa should be doing.

There should be a move away from subsidization and toward huge tax cuts.

Tax rates need to drop to where the North is attractive, even with its climate and distance challenges.

Walker suggests cutting the flow of subsidy money is a good thing.

But he acknowledged such a drastic measure would alter the North's population distribution dramatically.