Alberta tourism minister sees opportunities for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo

Alberta aims to more than double tourism dollars in the province to $25 billion by 2035.

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Alberta’s tourism minister says the province’s hospitality sector needs to expand beyond the Rocky Mountains, and says there are plenty of opportunities to promote tourism in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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The Alberta government has announced a goal of generating $25 billion in tourism dollars by 2035, more than double tourism spending in 2022. Tourism and Sport Minister Joseph Schow says Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo is one of 10 regions identified as an area that needs help developing tourism.

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“Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo has been identified as a tourism development zone because of the rich story it has to tell, and the opportunities we have to share Fort McMurray with the rest of the province, country and rest of the world,” said Schow in an interview.

“Having been there a few times now and seeing it first-hand, I definitely understand the allure of the region and now we just want to get more people there from around the world.”

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Tourism in 2022 generated $10.7 billion for Alberta, a $600 million increase from 2019. Schow admits the province’s tourism goals are “lofty,” but is confident they can be reached with its five-pillar strategy: leadership and alignment, competitive product, people and careers, expansion of access, and Indigenous tourism.

“We have our Crown jewels of Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise. But the analogy that I continue to use is to have Crown jewels, you need to have a Crown and Alberta is that Crown,” he said.

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A dancer in regalia at the Athabasca Tribal Council’s cultural festival at Snye Point Park on September 16, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The region’s targeted by Alberta are close to international airports or already have them. Most tourism is generated by the private sector, and Schow sees a successful tourism industry as a partnership between private operators and different levels of government.

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The province has given the Fort McMurray Airport Authority $119,200 to help develop a strategic business case. This plan will look at new or additional routes out of Fort McMurray. The goal of the funding is to recapture passenger traffic, which an airport spokesperson says has dropped significantly during the last 10 years.

“Tourism is jobs. Tourism is economic development. It’s the largest generator of export dollars in the province,” said Schow. “Recognizing that tourism is jobs means we are missing out on opportunities if we don’t explore this, we’re missing out on economic development if we don’t go after tourism.”

Tourism development also a priority for the RMWB

The municipality is also exploring tourism in the region. Encouraging sports tourism has been named a priority for the municipality and Fort McMurray’s athletic community. The Arctic Winter Games, New Holland Canadian Under-21 Curling Championships, and past and upcoming Baseball Canada championships have been hailed as tourism successes by local economic leaders.

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Kevin Weidlich, president of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT), told council at a meeting last month that building a community’s tourism reputation takes time. The groundwork is being laid through visits to trade shows and meeting with different tourism groups, he said.

The municipality has also developed plans to preserve historical sites across the region. That plan was created after a report to council found 62 out of 194 historical sites still exist.

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The remains of Bitumount, Alberta’s first commercial plant in the oilsands, covered in snow 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta. on Wednesday October 19, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network Photo by Vincent McDermott /Vincent McDermott/Today Staff

A separate municipal study found overwhelming support for preserving heritage sites in the region, particularly Bitumount, Fort McMurray Heritage Village and Heritage shipyard, Fort Chipewyan’s Bicentennial Museum, the building that now hosts Mitchell’s Cafe, Catholic and Anglican missions, the sites of the former railway station and salt plant in Waterways, and the waterfronts of Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan.

“The north is such an incredible place to explore and there’s a case to be made that some may overlook it,” he said. “Our job is to draw attention to it and funnel more people there. The best way to do that is invest in access.”

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