The Trouble With Tourism

By now, you’ve likely heard about the Provincial Government’s recent steps towards the creation of a “flatter, leaner civil service”. This includes the elimination of 287 core management positions and the realignment of three government departments. 

What does this mean for NL’s heritage sector? It’s likely too soon to say. As of yesterday afternoon, there was no word of cuts within BTCRD’s Heritage Division. Also no cuts to management at The Rooms (although two contract positions were eliminated). 

What Happened to Culture?

Less reassuring was the “streamlining” of the Department of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development into the Department of Tourism, Industry and Innovation. Yes folks, BTCRD is now TII. And while I welcome the shorter acronym (and the fact that none of us will ever have to endure another Butt Curd joke), I can’t help but wonder (and worry) what the loss of “culture” from the department’s title will ultimately mean.  

Call me paranoid, but I’m sensing a trend. New emphasis at the Rooms on public programming over back-of-house functions, government’s ongoing attempts to rebrand nonprofits/mission-driven organizations as “social enterprises” and now this. If you think I’m over reacting, consider the following. A little over two years ago, the Provincial Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation became the Department of Business, Culture, Tourism and Rural Development. According to a government issued press release, the then new department would lead efforts to partner with those who have expertise in the arts, culture, tourism and rural development, noting:

Effective business development serves to diversify the economy in general and rural economies in particular. Rural economic diversification has partly been fueled by tourism development, which has been one of the province’s major success stories over the past decade, creating hundreds of business opportunities and thousands of jobs. The preservation, celebration and presentation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s unique cultures are valued and valuable in their own right and must be supported. Concurrently, they remain a central focus of the province’s overall tourism development strategy.

While the 2014 merger of culture with business, tourism and rural development made many folks within the cultural sector uneasy, we were all at least somewhat reassured by government’s acknowledgement of and commitment to the intrinsic value of culture (that’s the bit about culture being valued and valuable in its own right). Compare that statement to the message delivered by Minister Mitchelmore in his February 23rd interview with CBC’s Ted Blades. Intrinsic value of culture? Not a peep. Instead? Culture as economic stimulator, job creator and revenue generator. 

The Trouble with Tourism

Tourism and culture have always been uneasy bedfellows. Yes, culture plays an important role in supporting tourism in this province ... and vice versa. But tourism is not our sector’s only or, in many cases, primary concern. And ignoring that fact can have real consequences. 

Consider the following basic fact. Successful tourism requires tourists. Not such a big deal if you’re a cultural organization in St. John’s, Twillingate or Bonavista. But what happens if you’re off the beaten track? What if your work is out-of-step, or a step ahead of popular tastes and expectations, or focuses on the histories/voices of marginalized groups, is bleeding edge or controversial, or highlights minority perspectives? In a province where culture = tourism, will these kinds of work be disadvantaged by a perceived lack of mass appeal? Will they be deemed less worthy of public support? 

The true value of culture has and always will be a mixed bag. Can it stimulate the ecomony, create jobs and generate revenue. Absolutely. But much of the value of culture is also intangible. This includes its aesthetic, emotional and/or intellectual value. You know, the stuff people are talking about when they say things like “This moves me” or “This raises so many questions” or “This makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger”. 

It’s the kind of value that can’t be measured by bums in seats or revenue generated. Let’s all make sure our government doesn’t forget that.