Canada: Growing Gains

Enquiries and bookings are looking healthy but Canada has major plans to see more tourists venturing into all of Canada's provinces and territories year-round, says Steve Hartridge

“All aboard!” is the clarion call and one that prompts a group shuffle out of Vancouver’s train station and onto the platform. Waiting for us are the silver-coloured carriages, emblazoned with a red maple leaf and the distinctive yellow logo, of Via Rail’s The Canadian.

I make my way to near the front, to Car 9, and find my sleeper cabin, Seat C.

I just have time to drop my bag and check out my pull-down bed before the train slowly splutters into life and a steward points me the way to a departure drink.

It is 15.00 and I am heading to Jasper, on a taster trip that involves an overnight on the train. In four days, some of the passengers will be deposited in Toronto.

There is something uniquely uplifting about the start of a rail journey, a sense of anticipation and escapism and of leaving the ordinary behind for a while; even a time for self-contemplation and discovery.

Rail travel can feel epic, almost timeless, and there is an immediate authenticity to this train. Although the fittings are perfectly modern, most of the carriages are over 50 years old, which just adds to the charm and sense of history.

The fact that the Rocky Mountains lie ahead along with a day of adventure activities in Canada’s quintessential mountain town, adds to the anticipation.

As we head out of Vancouver, the train now settled into a comforting rhythm, the skyline of the city is replaced by cactus, sagebrush and isolated pinnacles of rock called hoodoos.

Canada update via1
Via Rail’s The Canadain
Canada update canadian
The best seat in Canada

The Canadian’s boast of being ‘Canada’s best window’ is not an idle one: from the comfort of my cabin, or from the domed Park car, the passing scenery is often mesmerising. We crowd around windows to see Hell’s Gate, a famous stretch of rapids where the current is so swift that there’s a fish ladder to help salmon swim upstream. Ahead lies the glorious Rocky Mountains and Mt Robson, at 3,954 the range’s tallest Peak.

Along the way we enjoy meals showcasing Canadian and regional cuisines – Cajun salmon, rack of lamb, maple Dijon chicken – prepared by the train’s own chefs.

The night brings its own adventures with the Northern Lights making an appearance and visible from the train’s glass windows.

The next day we squeeze in an extra lunch before arriving in Jasper. The Canadian’s timetable is, how shall I say, a little on the loose side with arrival times ‘subject to change’. This is because the train ‘shares’ the tracks with those of Canada’s two freight companies, which have right of way when two trains meet on a single track.

Onboard stewards even have a name for this, which they call ‘cushion time’. We build up plenty of cushion time, with several stops that last for minutes at a time while we wait for those other trains to roll by, and we arrive into Jasper four hours after the scheduled time. But no matter, The Canadian is more about the journey, not a fast dash to a destination that’s not going anywhere.

Opportunity knocks

Canada has slipped down the table of favourite travel destinations but has a plan in place to arrest the slide. The Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Development Index, which measures the impact of factors and policies which enable sustainable development of tourism and its contribution to over 100 countries worldwide, ranked Canada 13th, a drop of three places from its previous position and marking the first time Canada has fallen out of the top ten.

However, Destination Canada is working to keep Canada’s tourism sector competitive and a new tourism strategy roadmap titled ‘A World of Opportunity’ hopes to transform the way tourism is “experienced, expanded, promoted and measured” in the country.

Underpinned by closer cooperation between all the players involved in Canada’s tourism industry, the goal is to see the country become a top seven global tourism destination by 2030, with an aim of generating $160 billion in annual revenue, up from around $140 billion at present.

But the strategy goes beyond the bottom line and also has a key regenerative and transformational aim (for travellers).

“We want Canada to be a destination that resonates deeply with travellers. And not just because of their experience here, but because travel to Canada leaves a mark on their hearts and gives them stories to tell long after they return home,” says Marsha Walden, CEO, Destination Canada.

“Canada is world-renowned for the beauty of its land, rugged coastlines, and majestic wildlife. That’s worth protecting. Tourism can only flourish in the long-term when it is supported by a healthy environment and welcoming communities. We are adopting a regenerative approach to tourism growth – to preserve, improve, and repair our environment. When tourism thrives, we all thrive,” she said.

“We’ll concentrate on travellers who stay longer, spend more, seek local culture, and truly engage with Canada, leaving our destinations better than they found them and becoming advocates for Canada through word-of-mouth.”

The A World of Opportunity initiative also “provides a platform for truthful storytelling”. It states: “To truly represent Canada to the world, we must understand our history. We are a country of both amazing achievements and terrible injustices. We need to see it for what it is, what it has been, what it is becoming. From here, we must build the Canada we want.”

Reasons for seasons

Rafting use
Rafting the Athabasca River

An aim of this regenerative approach is to draw more visitors in the “off seasons”, that is winter and autumn, which offer “under-exploited opportunities”. This will need significant investment to expand operations and create new product, admits Walden.

Several UK operators are already selling Canada as a year-round destination and are promoting the ‘less-busy’ seasons.

These include Canadian Affair, whose Head of Marketing Nick Talbot says both autumn and winter offer plenty of opportunities for visitors. “Winter presents some unique experiences that are not to be missed. Skiing in Whistler is a must do alongside staying at the Ice Hotel in Québec and visiting the Polar Bears of Manitoba at Tundra Buggy Lodge.

“And autumn is a great time to visit Canada as usually the crowds are smaller and the weather is still good; I recommend this as a great time for couples to visit,” he says.

Canadian Affair has launched an Alberta Agents Ski Incentive offer for agents, who can take a partner to Banff and Lake Louise for skiing/winter activities at a heavily discounted rate. “The aim is to expand agents’ familiarisation of these unique experiences so that they can offer them to their customers,” says Talbot.

Charlotte Porritt, Product Manager, Canada, Alaska and the Polar regions for Discover the World, recommends autumn for its wide range of experiences.

“September and October are good months to see the colours on a rail or self-drive trip and this is also peak bear viewing season, particularly for spotting grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest, polar bears in Churchill, and for seeing the Northern Lights,” she says.

Denise Hunn, Canada Programme Manager for Prestige Travel, agrees.

“Early to mid-October is one of my favourite times to visit. I was in British Columbia last October and have a great video of a grizzly bear and a black bear just wandering around the edge of a salmon fishing river in Campbell River,” she enthuses. “While winter is not a huge seller for us, it really should be with the great range of non-ski activities available.”

The majority of Audley Travel clients travel to Canada during the summer but Canada Product Manager James Butler is keen to position the country as a four-season destination.

“We are all in favour of extending the summer season to include the months of May and October, which offer exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities, autumn colours, fewer tourists and good value. We look forward to working with Destination Canada to grow visitation in these shoulder months, and throughout the year,” he says.

Selling fast

Canada is selling well for the UK’s Canada specialist tour operators. “Demand for 2025 is very strong. we are seeing record levels of forward business and the demand for holidays next year started earlier in comparison to previous years,” says Canadian Affair’s Talbot.

That’s a view echoed by Lorna Curry, Head of Product at First Class Holidays. “Canada is selling very well and bookings for 2025 are strong, with more clients booking much earlier than before,” she says.

While Toronto, Vancouver and the Rockies remain ever-popular, second- and third-time visitors are venturing to other regions of Canada, says Discover the World’s Porritt.

“We have a lot of repeat bookers who like to explore other parts of the country, such as the Atlantic regions and the Yukon.

“We have seen an increased interest from clients for alternative travel options, like rail and motorhome holidays,” she says.

Western Canada continues to be a huge draw for First Class Holidays’ clients but Curry says there is now more dispersion across Canada’s provinces and territories claiming: ”We are doing a lot of work with the other provinces including Atlantic Canada and Ontario, and it’s good to see slightly more off-the-beaten-track and unusual itineraries selling well.”

For Audley’s James Butler, Québec and the Atlantic provinces offer exciting opportunities. “We are developing an innovative new range of product and places for both,” he says.

As always, the advice to travel agents is to book as far in advance as possible, particularly for in-demand regions and products such as the Rockies, the Rocky Mountaineer and Churchill.

“With a short lead-in time it is difficult to find hotels in Banff and Lake Louise, which quickly get booked up or are available only at a high premium,” says Gary Worthington, Senior Product Executive at Lusso.

Worthington says increased flight options (see side panel) will open up new opportunities. “I recently flew with WestJet for the first time and was impressed by the smooth connections through Calgary,” he says. “We are hoping the airline’s services to Atlantic Canada will boost our East Coast bookings when we get Nova Scotia online.”

In February 2025 Vancouver will also host the first-ever winter edition of the Invictus Games and the following year, two cities will hosting FIFA World Cup matches: Toronto (six matches) and Vancouver (seven).

The time is right, it seems, for Canada to finally realise that world of opportunity.

What’s new

Canada update vancouver
Vancouver, as seen from a Harbour Air flightseeing plane

Ferry: A new ferry service, operated by Hullo Ferries, links downtown Vancouver and Nanaimo on Vancouver island. Two fast catamarans make the crossing in around 70 minutes.
Hotel: Niagara Falls, Ontario, will welcome its first five-star hotel in late 2026 or early 2027. The $200-million property will occupy the site of a former power generating station at Niagara Falls, built more than a century ago. The refurbished building will include a rooftop observation deck with a view of the falls, a public art gallery and a craft brewery.
Hotel: New in Prince Edward Island is Blackbush Resort, located by the water’s edge at Tracadie Bay and surrounded by the PEI National Park. Around 20 minutes northeast of Charlottetown, the resort’s original hotel was destroyed by fire in 1906. Plans include a hotel, a seafood restaurant, a fish market, holiday cottages and shops.
Tour: New this summer, Harbour Air’s Butchart Gardens Flights ‘n’ Flowers half-day tour is a 30-minute scenic seaplane service that operates from downtown Vancouver to The Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island.
Travellers enjoy a flight over British Columbia’s coast followed by a visit to the floral displays and serene landscapes of the gardens, a 55-acre attraction, before taking the return flight to Vancouver.
Train: Coming to Montréal in 2027 is an electric train service that will speed passengers from the city’s airport to downtown in 22 minutes. All stations in the network will be equipped with elevators to cater to passengers with luggage.
Tour: hous Adventures, in Tofino, B.C., owned and operated by the Ahousaht Nation, launched last summer season and is now hosting travellers on eco and cultural tours of Ahousat territorial lands and waters, including hot springs, bear watching and whale watching experiences.
Art: The Remai Modern art gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, opened an Indigenous garden this summer that includes a collection of medicinal plants.

Trade News

Each Wednesday (at 16.00) Destination Canada runs its Canada Specialist Programme Webinars.

“Agents have lots of fun learning about Canada coast to coast to coast, season to season with our tourist board and product partners,” says Adam Hanmer, Manager, Travel Trade at Destination Canada.
“Our CSP Elite programme launched in 2024 and we already have 20 top independent travel agents onboard.

“Over the next two years these agents will have access to Fam trips to Ontario, Winter Rockies, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia. The programme culminates with an exclusive overnight training event in a top UK hotel.”

Register at canadaspecialist.co.uk.

Canada taking off

Canada’s regions are set to be boosted by a raft of new air services

Westjet: A new Westjet flight between Gatwick and St. Johns, Newfoundland & Labrador this summer provides a timely boost for the Atlantic provinces.

The three-times-weekly seasonal service, operated by a Boeing 737-8 aircraft, will run until October 25, 2024. It marks the destination’s first non-stop service from Europe since 2019.

WestJet Vice President for External Affairs, Andrew Gibbons, says the carrier is “closing the critical gap in air accessibility for the province from one of Europe’s most popular travel hubs”.

Westjet also flies from Gatwick to Halifax and from Heathrow to Calgary and is operating non-stop services from Edinburgh to Calgary, Toronto and Halifax.

Air Transat: The airline has two direct routes between Gatwick and Québec this summer: to Québec City and a daily service to Montréal.

Air Transat also operates double daily flights between Gatwick and Toronto, as well as daily flights from Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin to Toronto.

Virgin Atlantic: The airline will launch a daily service between Heathrow and Toronto Pearson International Airport on March 30 2025, its first service to Canada in a decade. Flights will be operated by a mix of aircraft including the A330-900neo, the latest addition to Virgin’s fleet.

Virgin is expanding its codeshare partnership with WestJet from October, allowing connections from Toronto to destinations such as Ottawa and Winnipeg.