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.”