U.S. tourists becoming endangered

  • Thursday, June 26, 2008 11:41am
  • Opinion

SEATTLE – The Victoria Clipper ferry disgorges a capacity crowd of tourists at Pier 69 on the Seattle waterfront.

Shuffling through Pike Place market jammed with people enjoying a rare sunny day, visitors eye T-shirts that distill the essence of the local culture. “Seattle Rain Festival: Jan. 1 – Dec. 31,” says one. Stacks of baby-sized shirts articulate the city’s left-coast politics: “It’s my future. Vote Obama.” Adults can decorate their chests with “John McSame as Bush.”

A B.C. visitor feels empathy for a city grappling with the departure of its professional basketball team, its newspapers full of courtroom wrangling over the Sonics ownership trying to break their arena lease and flee to Oklahoma City. The midweek return trip on the Clipper is perhaps half full, mostly with returning British Columbians and their bags of bargains bought with dollars at par.

My tourist impressions tend to confirm the worried headlines at home: Canadians flock south while U.S. tourism is being battered by the dollar shift, soaring fuel prices, a struggling American economy and hardening border security.

U.S. politicians helped ease our tourism deficit last week. As Republican hopeful John McCain visited Ottawa to praise the virtues of North American free trade, a delegation from Washington’s state capital Olympia travelled to Mission Hill winery for their third annual joint cabinet meeting with B.C. politicians. Premier Gordon Campbell and Washington Governor Chris Gregoire have been determined in their efforts to ease trade and tourism across the border. At a news conference after their meeting, Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond was perhaps too enthusiastic.

“This is our third year here,” she said, “meeting together to see how we can remove that artificial border that we have that separates our two governments.”

U.S. Homeland Security is doing anything but “removing” the border. Campbell and Gregoire launched another joint plea to the U.S. government to increase border staffing and upgrade technology, as well as endorse a pilot project to use enhanced B.C. and Washington state drivers’ licences as a substitute for passports.

It appears things will get worse before they get better. Hammond notes the Blaine border crossing is in the midst of preparation for the 2010 Olympics.

“In the next year, our Blaine border crossing, because of the construction, will go down from eight booths to four,” Hammond said.

Campbell’s dubious “hydrogen highway” plan for the West Coast is evolving towards more promising alternative fuels. Now he’s calling the Highway 99-Interstate 5 route the “spine” of an alternative fuel network that will include compressed natural gas and charging stations for plug-in hybrid cars. Other B.C.-Washington projects include joint promotion of wine tours, hiking and biking destinations, and possibly a two-nation walk-on ferry pass good for both ferry systems.

Promotion efforts include this year’s World Indigenous Games in the Cowichan Valley, next year’s World Police and Fire Games in Burnaby, all leading up to the main event.

This kind of broad-scale effort to build on Olympic tourism is more impressive than the 2006 Torino games, where they couldn’t even get bums in the seats for the sporting events.

Let’s hope it works.

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