Exhibit showcases early tourism marketing

Steve Bartlett
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A pre-1947 paper touts Newfoundland as a vacation spot. —Submitted image

Despite the endless fog, it’s the summer tourism season and people are starting to visit. If it’s like last year, hundreds of thousands will come.

Many, Tourism Minister Terry French says, are being seduced by the province’s slick ad campaign, with this season’s spots boasting the benefits of our time zone as well as this place’s ability to captivate.

But while the ads are new, the marketing of Newfoundland and Labrador as a destination has been going on longer than many realize.

“Most people think of tourism as a contemporary development, which developed after the collapse of the cod fishery,” says Allan Byrne. “It’s not necessarily the case.”

He’d know. A few years ago, he wrote a master’s thesis on it. Now, he’s organized an exhibit for The Rooms on the files he used. It’s titled, “Twixt Mountains and Sea: The Newfoundland Tourist Development Board.”

The board existed from the mid-1920s to 1947 and consisted of some of St. John’s movers and shakers.

Byrne, who now works at The Rooms, says its objectives were finding out what outsiders thought of the island and promoting tourism.

To gather outside opinion, the board hired clipping agencies to collect print articles mentioning Newfoundland. As a result, he says the material says a lot about how people perceived Newfoundlanders and about our relationship with the rest of the continent.

“North Americans were fascinated by people like Bob Bartlett and Sir Wilfred Grenfell, and they were also fascinated by the military heritage here. Places like Brigus, Cupids, Harbour Grace were generally considered to be Old World military outports that had been sort of left behind by modernity. ... There’s a whole range of accounts you get, but those are the ones that sort of come forward in the literature.”

To promote tourism, the board bought ads in magazines and supported people like American fly-fishing legend Lee Wulff, who produced photos and film about his time here.

During the ’30s and ’40s, Byrne says, Newfoundland was becoming more marketable than ever.

“It had the railway, the construction of the Newfoundland Hotel in 1927, and you see various fishing camps and lodges building up across the railway. (The board) was originally trying to attract people to the Newfoundland recreational salmon fishery, which had not been a new development. It had been popular throughout the Victorian era.”

Byrne notes a motif promoted back in the day that’s still being marketed now is Newfoundlanders as sort of their own breed.

His exhibit includes many of the ads, brochures and images the board collected. The slogans includes lines like “A cool unspoiled vacationland invites you,” and the majestic photos show Wulff netting a salmon at Western Brook Pond.

“The photographs are among some of the nicest stuff that are in our collection,” Byrne points out.

The most fascinating item for him is a guestbook from the old board’s headquarters at the Newfoundland Hotel. It includes the signatures of numerous visitors, including filmmaker Varrick Frissell, who was killed while finishing his pioneer movie on the seal hunt, “The Viking.”

Byrne’s research didn’t focus on the numbers of visitors that came back 70 or 80 years ago, but he suspects it was in the tens of thousands annually.

He suggests the numbers would have been higher if not for the economic climate.

“My research, and the exhibit itself, is certainly not ignorant or blind to the fact that the board existed at the same time there was Great Depression on, and probably a greater depression, many historians would argue, for Newfoundland.”

So the government couldn’t afford to do much more in terms of attracting travellers. Byrne says the board was even told tourism wasn’t a priority.

The same cannot be said now. Government is spending $13 million on marketing the province this year. Tourism is a growth industry and an initiative — that includes a new tourism board — is in place to try and double the size of the sector by 2020.

Tourism was worth over $850 million in 2010, with a record 518,000 non-resident visitors generating over $400 million of that.

Minister French says the indications are those numbers will be higher this year. He believes targeted advertising is playing a role in the industry growth.

The advertising, which has picked up over 100 awards since 2006, is very different than that of the 1930s and ’40s, however French believes the province has stayed true to its roots.

“It’s always been to us about our outdoors and our natural beauty. That’s something they promoted way back. Today we’re doing the same thing. We’re trying not to commercialize our ads and trying to keep it very much an authentic experience.”

The old board, according to Byrne, “disbanded just before Confederation because of various political happenings at the time.”

Ultimately, he hopes the display makes people think about why they travel.

“Tourism is a strange thing that we do. Everybody who can travel, travels, and when we do take a vacation, we’re looking for something oppositional to our daily lives. I think what I’d like for people to take away from the exhibit is that that changes over time.”


Twitter: bartlett_steve

Organizations: The Rooms, Newfoundland Hotel

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Brigus

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Recent comments

  • California Pete
    June 27, 2011 - 11:55

    I can't afford the car rental sorry I wont be back

  • Dave from Mt Pearl
    June 25, 2011 - 16:00

    The whole thing that holds back tourism here in Newfoundland and Labrador is the cost that is imposed on getting here.The inconvenience of the whole process of crossing the Gulf,not user friendly and very costly.Although it is very good for the west coast of the Island,they get alot more visitors from the ferries than we do out here.This is a large geographic area and the price of fuel is severely over inflated.We have the most gas stations per capita then anywhere else in Canada because of our distances that we have to travel even between communities.Tourism will grow no doubt but it will be slow,we could only hope for the tourism that the other Atlantic Provinces receive.

  • Jerry
    June 25, 2011 - 13:24

    Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, both home and away, as well as quite a few tourists, are waiting for an announcement on the recreational food fishery for this year. How can people plan vacations, book time off, reservations/travel, and have the kind of vacation that the Province is trying to promote when there is no effort to make an announcement and give people a chance make their plans. Every year this problem causes unnecessary issue for visitors and travellers, and it shouldn't happen. This year is the greatest delay yet! Please set the dates and made it public if you really want to inspire visitors and show the Welcome you want to project.

  • DON
    June 25, 2011 - 09:21

    I have made some inquiries and it appears that the 518,000 non-resident tourist visitor number is grossly inflated. Where does that number come from and was it independently verified? The Government of Newfoundland is infamous for its public relations spin doctoring. I don't believe that number represents the actual number of tourists who visited Newfoundland and Labrador. Perhaps it can be determined that number of people traveled to the Province but how many were on business or were truckers who travel to the Province on a weekly basis anyway. The number of bona fide tourists coming to Newfoundland is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of tourists who visit PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Tourists who visit Nova Scotia do not continue on to Newfoundland because the travel costs are too high, reservations are hard to get, there are no rental cars available, service is surly and accommodations and meals are sub standard and over priced. There are very few first class accommodations outside of St. John's and there is a reason for that, Government regulations and incompetence. I spoke with a former tourism operator around the bay who told me about his encounters over the years with the Tourism Department, the Health Department and the Newfoundland Liquor Licensing Board. He told me that dealing with the Government of Newfoundland was a nightmare. I was shocked and astounded at the baloney he had to endure to open and operate his tourism business. The paperwork and the fees were onerous. Years back he wanted a liquor license in order to cater to wedding receptions in his area. He was told to install more public restrooms, which he did, he was told to upgrade fire safety, which he did and so on, but the liquor license was denied because the wedding receptions had children in attendance and because people under 21 years of age at the time could not be present in an establishment which served alcohol. The liquor inspector told him that no ring bearers, no flower girls or other children were allowed at a wedding reception held in a licensed liquor establishment. WHAT? Eventually the law was changed but by then the tourism operator had had enough of the laws and inspectors of the Government of Newfoundland and he closed up shop. It is no wonder that tourism numbers in Newfoundland are a drop in the bucket compared to other Provinces. Your optimism is just more Government Public Relations baloney Minister French, give it a rest!

    • mary
      June 25, 2011 - 15:37

      Wow, Don, aren't you the positive one and look at your spin on things using info from someone's experience of years ago. Someone, we don't know who, attempting to set up a business when the legal drinking age was 21 - that must be what, 30 years ago? 35 years ago?? 40 years ago??? I suppose nothing has changed since then?