Prepare for a New Wave of American Tourists

After years of declining visitation, Americans—especially millennials—are looking to tour Canada again. Is your business ready?

Written by Michael McCullough

The Yankees are coming. Young ones especially.

After a decade and a half of declining visitation to Canada, Americans have put us back on top of their international travel to-do list, and millennials are the most likely demographic to pick Canada as a destination—a group representing 74 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34. This is welcome news for tourism operators who have been experiencing a dearth  of American clients in recent years, but it means getting to know a new group of potential customers. And what millennials are looking for might not be what you expect.

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The prediction comes from a poll conducted by Resonance Consultancy, a tourism research group with offices in Vancouver and New York. Canada edged out Mexico, 29% to 28%, as the foreign country respondents most planned to visit in the next two years. The survey was conducted with 1,256 respondents 18 years or older with household incomes in excess of US$50,000 in November—when gasoline prices and the Canadian dollar were considerably higher than they are today. That suggests there may be further upside for rubber-tire traffic.

Since 2000, Americans’ same-day visits to Canada have declined an astonishing 71%, and overnight visits are down 21%. Americans have been making fewer trips globally in general, hitting a low of 59 million in 2011. But that’s changing. Estimates from the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries showed a nearly 10% year-over-year increase in outbound travel in 2014.

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The decline from 2000 to 2010 may have been due to demographics, explains Resonance president Chris Fair. “Now that we have the millennials on the scene and travelling, now that we have an exchange rate that’s tracking in favour of the U.S. and, most significantly of all, U.S. travel jumped 10% last year and set an all-time record, the confluence of those three trends bodes well for Canadian tourism in the years ahead,” he says.

The survey tracked travel intentions, mind you. People don’t always follow through with their plans. Still, the Canadian Tourism Commission, which suspended marketing to the U.S. leisure market in 2012 on the grounds that the money was better allocated elsewhere, indicated in February it would restart its stateside campaigns this year. Further, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada is pushing a plan called Connecting America that aims to return U.S. visitation numbers to the record levels of 2002.

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To take advantage of Americans’ newfound interest in Canadian destinations, tourism operators have to understand who that customer is, Fair says. Millennials are largely in nest-building mode; they already head up 11 million households with kids. In contrast to overseas visitors who prize Canada’s natural beauty above all, what appeals to Gen Y most is that Canada is a safe, scenic destination with fun attractions.

“That’s a bit of a different proposition from heli-skiing,” Fair says. He cites “accessible” attractions like the new Sea-to-Sky Gondola in Squamish, B.C., which transports wheelchair-bound seniors and mountaineers alike to a viewpoint atop a 1,000-metre cliff, as the wave of the future.

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Canada could also do a better job marketing its urban experiences, Fair says. “Younger visitors are as interested in cities as they are in nature,” he says, pointing to his firm’s analysis of responses to TripAdvisor and on social media, which showed Toronto’s CN Tower, Vancouver’s Granville Island and Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica to be up there with Niagara Falls—and well ahead of Banff—among the most-recommended places in Canada.

Long-suffering tourism operators will no doubt welcome the Americans’ return. “Across February we saw incredible numbers because of the frozen falls,” says Ryan Moran, senior manager of marketing for the Niagara Parks Commission, which operates attractions such as the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory and is currently upping its marketing efforts in cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. “We definitely see things trending upwards.”

Still, Fair has a warning for operators who haven’t updated their market research since the last time Americans made their way north. “Lots of people are talking about re-engaging with the U.S. market,” he says. The U.S. market today consists of millennials, “not the baby boomers marketed to in the past.”


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