UNESCO designation a boon for N.L.’s already growing tourism industry

Daily Brew

[Mistaken Point in Newfoundland and Labrador was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site on Sunday. RADIO-CANADA]

This weekend’s designation of Mistaken Point as Newfoundland and Labrador’s fourth UNESCO World Heritage site is a boon for the province’s tourism industry, already a bright spot amidst its economic struggles.

“A lot of work has gone into it to this point and a lot of work has gone into preparing for a positive announcement,” Perry Trimper, the province’s environment minister, tells Yahoo Canada News about the work done so far to promote the site of 565-million-year-old sea floor fossils as a geological and tourism destination.

The Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve saw a 43-per-cent increase in its number of visitors during the 2015 tourism season, according to the provincial government, and could see even more now that it has received UNESCO designation. But it’s just one part of a tourism industry that is growing despite the economic slump in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Canada’s youngest province has suffered economically because of diminished oil revenues due to lower global crude prices. The downturn in the resource industry has been particularly hard because so many people from Newfoundland and Labrador go back and forth to work in Alberta, which has also seen large numbers of layoffs because of low oil prices.

But while the oil sector has contracted in the short term and the province’s fishery continues to decline, tourism is an increasingly important industry for Newfoundland and Labrador. Tourism brought in $1.1 billion in revenues to the province in 2015, up from $878 million in 2010 and nearly double the $572 million in oil revenues expected for 2015-16.

And the tourism season — which generally runs from May to October — has been better than expected so far this year, Joseph O’Brien of O’Brien’s Boat Tours in Bay Bulls tells Yahoo Canada News. 

While the low loonie doesn’t help Newfoundland and Labrador as much as it does Canada’s border provinces, O’Brien says, the fact that it’s been a great year so far for both icebergs and whale watching has boosted his business, which operates boat tours on the eastern coast of Newfoundland. 

Rose Coker, owner of Twilly House in Twillingate, tells Yahoo Canada News, “I am amazed at how well things are going since I did not get on the [provincial] tourism site until mid-July and opened July 1.” And Joan Penney says that her Penney’s Vacation Homes on Fogo Island have also been solidly booked so far this season.

The addition of another UNESCO designation can only help the industry’s growth, says Richard Thomas, geologist for the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. It’s also notable that Mistaken Point is located just over an hour’s drive from the capital St. John’s.

“It’s the fourth world heritage site in the province now, but it’s the first one on the east coast of the province and it’s the first one that is managed by the provincial government instead of Parks Canada,” Thomas says.

Geological tourism is a growing market in general, Thomas says, and now two of the province’s UNESCO sites — Mistaken Point and Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland — have been recognized for their geological importance. The province’s location on the edge of North America means that it’s unique both in landscape and history. The other two UNESCO sites — L’anse aux Meadows in northwestern Newfoundland and Red Bay in Labrador — are related to early exploration of North America.

“A lot of people are recognizing our ad campaigns,” O’Brien says about visitors to the province. “A lot of people are hearing about the great friendliness of the people of Newfoundland, and now they’re discovering our historical significance to the planet.”

It’s hard to predict what exact numbers will be for any boost that the UNESCO designation will provide for Mistaken Point, Thomas says. But when the Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia were inscribed by UNESCO in 2008 the number of visitors went up 150 per cent in the first month and stayed elevated, he says.

“We’re sure that both the number of visitors coming generally and the number taking the tours is bound to increase,” Thomas says.

It could be that simply being considered for the designation already provided the site with a boost, Thomas says. 

“Already this year our numbers for booking a tour here are up,” he says.

Visitors to Mistaken Point must book an official tour to view the fossils, as part of several measures in place to preserve the site. And Trimper says that staffing will be adjusted to account for expected increases in visitors to the site now that the UNESCO designation has been granted.

Those measures will have to stay in place despite visitor increases in order to protect the now-designated site, Thomas says. Local residents also play a large role in protecting the fossils, he says, which are the oldest-known evidence of the first large, complex multicellular life forms on the planet.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Thomas says.