In our newest report, titled The Future of Cannabis in Canada, we focused on national citizen sentiment several months into federal legalization. Tourism, already the world’s fastest-growing industry, was a big focus on the report. Our insights revealed that global curiosity around traveling for weed will accelerate tourism growth in Canada—and other legalized destinations—over the next decade. Here’s how.
On October 17, 2018, Canada made history by becoming the second country (after Uruguay—of course!) to legalize the recreational possession, growth and use of cannabis.
According to Sean Roby, founder and CEO of Colorado-based Bud and Breakfast—a company that connects pot enthusiasts with lodging and curated travel experiences in Canada, the U.S. and other destinations around the globe—Canadians have been quietly welcoming weed-smoking tourists for years. And now, Roby is confident that ‘canna-tourism’ is poised to become a multi-billion-dollar industry—one that features CBD-infused spa treatments, pot-themed museums and wedding venues, pot tasting tours and yoga retreats, and just about anything else ganja-preneurs can hash out in a business plan.
In fact, global accounting firm Deloitte predicts that Canadians will spend $7 billion on marijuana and related products in 2019 alone, and industry experts like Shaman Ferraro, CEO of cannabis tourism guide Gocanna, believe that the country should expect a boom in tourism as a result of legalization—as much as $2 billion annually within a few short years.
Evidence suggests that cannabis will spark a bold new tourism segment. Wine and weed tours are hopping in California, one of 10 U.S. states that has legalized marijuana consumption. The demand for a Rocky Mountain high in Colorado, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, has soared more than 50% since 2014.
JUST HOW HIGH CAN WE GO?
No amount of smoke can obscure the figures from across the pond in Amsterdam, where, according to city officials, some 18 million tourists visited last year, with 25% to 30% targeting the Dutch cannabis coffeeshop experience. Spain is another European destination that quietly embraced cannabis culture with dedicated pot clubs and museums: Barcelona leads the way as a popular ‘weekend break’ destination for European weed enthusiasts.
One Canadian city that’s enjoyed a reputation for being weed-friendly since long before legalization is Vancouver. For years, authorities have turned a blind eye to the rising number of illegal dispensaries and cafes where cannabis is smoked openly. It’s no surprise the liberal, green, hipster metropolis is known in some circles as “Vansterdam.”
However, Toronto may be the Canadian city destined to be the next Amsterdam, at least according to Matt Cronin, founder of Canadian High Tours. He says it’s all about access: Toronto is “close to America and a short flight from Britain, Germany, the Middle East and even Africa. It’s a lot harder to get to Vancouver.”
He adds that while the cannabis industry is blossoming in Canada, it seems to be waning in Amsterdam where, according to The Economist, the Dutch government has been clamping down on coffee shops (especially near schools) and banning many from serving cannabis to tourists.
TOURISM’S NEW MONEYED FRONTIER
In 2017, licensed marijuana retailers in the U.S. and Canada reported combined sales of $9.7 billion, according to The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, a report by Arcview Market Research. That’s a 33% year-over-year increase, and Arcview predicts that the legal cannabis market in the two countries will grow 28% annually, reaching $24.5 billion by 2021.
South of the border in the state of Oregon, the 500-plus licensed cannabis retailers are said to outnumber Starbucks locations. And in Aspen, Colorado, cannabis sales reached $11.3 million in 2017, surpassing alcohol sales for the first time.
Think of it as visiting Napa Valley—but with weed instead of wine. Colorado’s ‘green rush’ has turned out to be a billion-dollar business of hydroponic agriculture and artisanal dispensaries. Travel-oriented enterprises have taken notice, creating tours and experiences—stoner mountain treks, weed-friendly charter SUVs and weed-paired dinners, for example—that cater to curious visitors in the increasingly lucrative market of cannabis. If there’s one assumption the emerging tourist infrastructure operates under, it is, in the words of Wiz Khalifa, “everything’s better when you’re high.”
A LONG WAY TO GO FOR TOURISM MARKETERS
While interest and business acumen may be there, concrete support from the tourism industry has not yet materialized. The prevailing strategy among American destination marketing organizations (DMOs) is to inform, not endorse. Indeed, DMO websites for cities like West Hollywood, Las Vegas and Seattle feature FAQs about cannabis consumption, and some list a few licensed dispensaries—but not much else. “I don’t think there’s anyone coming to Portland just for cannabis, because it’s a relatively short transaction,” says Marcus Hibdon, communications director for Travel Portland. “So we’re focusing on all the other things you’re going to do before or after going to a dispensary.”
Travel Portland is “still trying to figure out how much promotion is necessary and how much the consumer is able to figure out once they get here,” says Hibdon.
“We also try to make sure that we’re cognizant of where the expertise lies”—namely, with dispensary owners and employees, tour operators and other cannabis-centric businesses.
As the first G7 country to legalize cannabis, Canada’s national and provincial DMOs are themselves struggling to figure out how to handle canna-tourism promotion.
“Canada is a big draw even without cannabis, as there are amazing natural resources and amazing cities here,” says Cronin. According to Neev Tapiero, a former dispensary owner-turned tour operator, “The provincial and federal tourism bureaus are completely unprepared for cannabis tourism.
There is no information available.” Tapiero’s company, Canadian Kush Tours, offers packages that include airport pickup, dispensary tours, extract classes, cooking classes, growing classes and grow-room tours. Andrew Hiscock, tourism development officer for Legendary Coasts of Eastern Newfoundland, thinks the country can benefit from canna-tourism.
“I go for a walk every night in Saint John’s and I can always smell it,” he says. “So the scene is already evident. With the change in legislation, you could say that coming to Newfoundland will be the quickest way to get high if you fly from Europe. It’s only around five hours from London.”
But international visitors are not the only source of tourism dollars.
A DORMANT DOMESTIC TOURISM MARKET
Our study shows cannabis users having relatively high interest in several cannabis social and entertainment options.
Roughly half of Canadian cannabis users surveyed say they would definitely or probably visit a cafe or restaurant where cannabis edibles/drinkables are served (53%), while half of them say they would visit a consumption place where users can try different cannabis products or visit a cafe or restaurant where smoking/vaping cannabis is permitted.
A quarter of Canadian cannabis users said they would choose a vacation destination where they could visit cannabis growing and manufacturing facilities and tasting rooms.
“I expect that [cannabis] tour companies will drive to places like Tweed [the vertically integrated cannabis empire based in Smith Falls, Ontario] and take people on a tour of the facility,” says Trina Fraser, an Ottawa-based lawyer specializing in cannabis. “Then the tour company can go to a retail store where people can purchase weed, then take them back to Ottawa where they can drop the tourists off at a cannabis-friendly hotel. Then give them an educational program, like cooking with cannabis.”
Is it merely coincidence that New York-based river cruise company Le Boat just launched self-sail houseboating tours in the nearby Rideau Canal? Given that the boats are fortified with extra bumpers and cushions, we think not.
As The Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown noted in a story on the revival of Smiths Falls in October 2018, “With time and luck, the world will flock to Smiths Falls for weed the way tourists travel to Dublin for Guinness and Vienna for pastries.”
Trips like this are what Canadian High Tours would like to offer eventually. Cronin, whose company already works out of Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal, says he also hopes to combine weed tours with other experiences like cross-country skiing and ice fishing. He thinks it’s just a matter of time before cannabis becomes normalized and people accept it like they do alcohol. “It will take time [but] with edibles coming, it’s going to blow the tourism door wide open,” he says.
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