Believe it or not, staying at home might have been a much-needed catalyst for cannabis tourism in Canada. With the worst of the COVID pandemic (hopefully) nearing its end in North America and borders reopening, the hard-hit tourism sector is eager to get back on its feet.
Prior to the pandemic, analysts suggested that cannabis tourism—also referred to as cannatourism—could ultimately contribute $2-billion annually to the Canadian economy. Yet despite projected revenues, Canada’s cannabis-friendly tourism industry has been a bit of a non-starter.
The industry was ready, but the infrastructure simply wasn’t there. Could the post-pandemic world provide a second chance for developing a robust cannatourism industry?
Huge potential with no momentum or infrastructure
Legalization drove a 38% increase in international tourist visits to Canada in 2019, according to analysts. This was in spite of federal and provincial regulations making it nearly impossible for a business to provide cannabis—or a space to consume it—to customers.
“The truth is, people who are consumers want to be in an environment where they’re welcomed and where cannabis is normalized,”
says Danielle ‘Miz D’ Jackson, co-founder of Canna Life Travel.
Provincial regulators were unwilling to champion cannatourism, and they made finding or consuming nearly impossible with limited retail options and laws banning smoking both outdoors and inside.
“It’s just unfortunate that tourism was never even on the governmental radar, in terms of legalization,” says Danielle “Miz D” Jackson, co-founder of Canna Travel Life.
Cannabis was always part of her experience while travelling and as a result, Miz D spent the leadup to legalization organizing cannabis-related events and figuring out what worked.
“[Those early days] presented a lot of challenges, but it also presented a lot of opportunities,” explains Miz D. “We had a lot of support, and we still have a lot of support from mainstream travel, tourism, and hospitality.”
While Miz D and other key players initially had high hopes for tourism after legalization, those hopes were dashed out of the gate. Now, she says it’s possible the pandemic may have changed the way the government and stakeholders view cannabis tourism as an industry.
The pandemic may have helped cannabis tourism
The surprising news about cannatourism, Miz D says, is that it’s been growing constantly since legalization in 2018—and the pandemic may be one of the best things that could have happened to the sector.
“Early on in the pandemic, cannabis was regarded as essential,” says Miz D. “That began to change people’s perception of cannabis as just something people do for fun.”
In fact, she notes, for many Canadians, cannabis became synonymous with relief from the stresses associated with the pandemic. “It became something integral in their personal wellness, whether or not they’re a medicinal consumer or an adult-use consumer.”
People under a state of emergency where cannabis was essential but travel was impossible put the two ideas together, says Miz D. “They began to not want to compromise their accessibility to cannabis in their travels. As they begin to think about travelling now, consumers simply don’t want to have to choose.”
Legalization doesn’t mean normalization
Since legalization, the concept of cannabis tourism has changed.
Miz D stresses the importance of understanding the contemporary consumer and their needs. Some have been surprised to discover many consumers are looking for all-inclusive style vacations in family-friendly environments.
“Most people did not think of that in terms of cannatourism,” she laughs, recalling early cannatourist endeavours oriented primarily around consumption, which just isn’t what cannabis tourists tend to be looking for.
“Every meal I eat on vacation doesn’t need to be infused!” she laughs. “The truth is, people who are consumers want to be in an environment where they’re welcomed and where cannabis is normalized.”
Cannatourism means never smoking in a shady alley again
Normalization is very different from legalization, Miz D notes, recalling a trade show visit to Colorado not long after that state legalized in late 2012. She received a swag bag full of joints and vaporizers and asked her hotel concierge where she could go to consume those products safely.
She recalled him saying: “Well, if you go down the alley behind the dumpster over there, you’ll be OK.”
And she thought to herself, “Here I am in a legal environment and I’m still down the alley and behind the dumpster.”
“You’re still put in that unsafe situation. When you travel, you don’t have the same access as someone who is local. You don’t have a home to go to, where you can consume it, and that’s a really, really major part of cannatourism.”
Miz D says Vancouver’s New Amsterdam Café is a great example of cannabis-driven tourism. This smoke-and-vapour lounge has been around since 1998, and despite operating without permit, is still a huge tourist draw for Vancouver, that it remains open to this day.
She reminices bringing two guests from Colorado to smoke a joint while they enjoyed the café’s tea, baked goods, and other food offerings.
“They said to me, ‘My god, we can’t even do this in Colorado.”
Hotels and hospitality services are essential
For Miz D, how operators treat and inform their guests is where the rubber hits the road in cannatourism. She feels even major hospitality players like Hyatt and Four Seasons could easily enter the field by offering rack-card pamphlets informing guests about local retail locations and consumption regulations.
“We have an opportunity in tourism to do what legalization did not do, which is normalization,” which Miz D explains was never the government’s goal for legalization.
“[People are] looking to travel to a place where not only are they not ostracized or discriminated against because they are a consumer, but they’re sort of welcomed because of that—and there are provisions put in place to support them.”
We see this happening in Smith Falls, Ontario; Miz D points out how Canopy completely reshaped the town as a cannabis destination. That shift occurred, in part, thanks to support from both the chamber of commerce and municipal government. Miz D thinks any town or city could repeat what Smiths Falls has done with the right infrastructure and municipal support.
Consumer focus is the way forward
At some point, it will become impossible for governments to sit on their hands. Cannatourism ultimately has the potential to be as lucrative as wine region tourism—while offering a safer product to consume.
“Instead of trying to exclude the consumer’s voice from regulatory discussions,” she says, “the government is going to have to just say, ‘It’s happening: how do we work with that?’”
Not only is cannatourism potentially profitable, but it also presents the opportunity for social equity gains. “[Cannabis tourism] offers entrepreneurs with smaller budgets the opportunity to create a business,” says Miz D. You can basically start a business in cannatourism, especially a tour business, for next to nothing.”
That means the government is going to have to eventually acknowledge cannatourism and—Miz D hopes—embrace it by recognizing stakeholders, cannatourism operators, and cannatourists themselves as no less important to the economy than any other business or its clients.