The new Amsterdam?

Posted on January 22, 2020 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

There are opportunities for cannabis tourism in Atlantic Canada, these two experts say—if only the regulations would allow for them

Imagine the tourism ad: a man standing at the edge of rocky cliffs, sporting a newsboy cap and a thick beard. As he looks out onto the water, the sun peeps over the horizon, the sky blazing orange. He pulls a pipe from his pocket, packs the bowl with Atlantic Canadian-branded cannabis, and lifts the stem to his lips.

Could a day come where an ad like this is playing on screens in Europe or Asia, in hopes of attracting tourists to a thriving Atlantic Canadian cannabis tourism industry?

“My first thought was, ‘No, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t know how sustainable it is,” says Shawn King, a Halifax-based marketer and host of Turning a New Leaf, a podcast about cannabis in Canada.

“But then I started to think about it like the wine industry.”

That’s a model with possibilities, he says. If growing facilities could operate like vineyards and market themselves as destinations, offering travelers opportunities to sample different strains and the products made with them, even having restaurants or breweries on site where guests can have a drink and a bite to eat—perhaps made with ingredients infused with the local crop. They could even pick up souvenirs and some of their favourite strain at the gift shop on the way out.

That could be a major draw for people from away, he says.

But current regulations don’t allow for anything like that, he points out. For starters, in every province but Newfoundland and Labrador, cannabis can only be sold at government-run stores. And we’re nowhere near the point where customers could consume cannabis products in any kind of restaurant or café, let alone at a production facility.

Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador does have an advantage with privately-owned stores being able to offer a different shopping experience, but it’s a small gain and hardly enough, he says.

But King has faith. As government and the public become more comfortable with cannabis, and as more people enter the market, craft growers will spring up and give the regulations a push, he says. And government will be under increasing pressure from entrepreneurs to ease up on the rules and let them develop the market. King says he’s already getting asked for his input on ideas from entrepreneurs eager to build themselves a place in the market but are ultimately stymied by tight regulations.

“You get enough of those people, government will relent,” says King. The entrepreneurs will just have to come up with something that will shine even when the novelty has worn off, he says.

Nancy Chesworth agrees that the regulations have to loosen up before cannabis tourism has a chance in Atlantic Canada. A research associate at the University of New Brunswick, she was all set to offer a course on cannabis tourism this fall, but it was cancelled when not enough students enrolled. Chesworth thinks news about disappointing returns, including the New Brunswick government saying it lost serious money selling cannabis, may have turned the students away.

A report from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, drawing on Statistics Canada numbers, says the black market still has a lion’s share of the recreation market: 79 per cent of the product and two-thirds of the sales in the second quarter of 2019. Though legal production and sales did have a bigger hold by the end of the first year, the report says black market prices were dropping to make up for the loss in business, making it increasingly tough for the legal players to compete.

The report also says PEI Cannabis Management ultimately reported a loss. The New Brunswick government has since put out a call for a private operator to take over Cannabis NB.

Nonetheless, the report says the industry will likely keep growing “at a double-digit pace” for two more years before levelling off, if the experience of legalization in American states is a good indicator of what’s to come.

The disappointing market news is “more of a short-term view,” Chesworth says. However, she does see hope for cannabis tourism here, or even cannabis-friendly services to market to tourists—if regulations allow. “It hasn’t picked up yet,” she says. “But I think it will in the future.”

She thinks the scenery in a place like Cape Breton or Newfoundland and Labrador, coupled with the strong local and regional culture, gives Atlantic Canada a real shot at being a major Canadian weed destination. The only place she sees having a leg-up is British Columbia with its long-standing history as a pot-friendly place.

She points to Colorado, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2014. There, government embraced the tourism possibilities and ventures like cannabis wellness retreats, yoga classes, cooking classes, walking tours and smoking lounges thrive. Just two years after legalization, the state attracted 6.5 million cannabis tourists, according to the Colorado Department of Revenues.

And then there’s California, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2016. There, weed tours are the new wine tours. Or you could do both: wine and weed tours, and even craft beer and weed tours, are increasingly popular. Patrons can travel from wineries and breweries to growing facilities on party busses or limousines. The laws are still adjusting (at first travelers could smoke cannabis in those vehicles, and the driver was sealed off by a glass partition—which isn’t allowed any more), but the point is that the industry isn’t held up by the pace of legislation.

Chesworth thinks cannabis cruises could do well in Atlantic Canada, but cautions that with legal weed still so new, insurance hurdles will likely be high for any cannabis tourism. “Insurance companies may not know how to handle this,” she says.

As for government-led ad campaigns featuring squinting smokers on salty seaside shores to attract tourists, she’s not sure we’ll ever get there. “Finding a carrier for that message on the standard media could be a bit of a trick,” she says, laughing. “It would have to be handled very well and the message would have to be clear to the people you’re targeting.”

King wonders if the campaigns would even be necessary. “I think that the global press is doing that job for us in many ways,” he says. He says he was recently in Amsterdam and most of the people he spoke to knew Canada had legalized cannabis.

“I asked [one man] if he’d ever come to Canada and he said, ‘I will now.’” •

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