Ashley Keenan:

We don’t deserve cannabis tourism, yet

Photo credit: Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

Note from the editors: At this time, the World Health Organization and Health Canada discourage all non-essential travel to reduce the widespread transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

There are a certain amount of stares and whispers that one encounters when working in the cannabis industry and consuming unapologetically. So when a stranger timidly approached myself and a group of likeminded cannabis professionals’ post sesh, I was expecting an awkward conversation. Instead, a woman shyly asked our group if we knew where she and her partner could find some cannabis. The pair shared with us that they had planned a special romantic getaway in Niagara Falls, going so far as to secure a hotel, a babysitter, and travel across the border, all in pursuit of that sweet, legal, lady Jane—only to be met with confusion and disappointment.

They assumed what most would: that in a country where a product is legal, they could purchase said product at some sort of retail location. Instead, what they discovered was little help, a 45-minute drive to the nearest store from their hotel, and numerous head shops covered in weed branding but no product available. Country-wide we face persistent issues regarding retail locations, lack of consumer education, and varying laws on consumption dependent on location.

“Currently, Canada is missing out on potential economic and societal gains by not sufficiently accommodating cannabis enthusiasts who travel for business, leisure, and wellness,” explains Danielle “Miz D” Jackson, who has worked with tourists since 2004 providing cannabis-friendly destinations, events, activities, education, tours, and guided excursions.

“Like the industry itself, many are just beginning to comprehend the vast scope of this market and the opportunities it offers,” she says, adding the government needs to embrace normalization in order to fully serve the cannabis tourism market, and avoid leaving tourists like our New York friends (not-so) high and dry.

Where is all the weed?

According to the tourists, they had been staring at us so intently over the course of dinner because we were speaking openly about cannabis. It was the first time they had seen, smelled, or simply even heard about it all day. It's a big missed opportunity according to Miz D, who didn’t meet the tourists but resonated with their story. “The overly strict regulations, conflicting implementations, and lack of understanding for the consumer market, is creating significant challenges to service providers and tourists.”

While growing pains are expected for any budding industry, there are simply too many barriers to accessing legal cannabis at the moment. The current framework burdened by lack of retail locations—or clusters of far too many as seen on Queen St. in downtown Toronto—is challenging for tourists and Canadians alike. The volume and distribution of stores leaves a lot to be desired, even in urban centers like Niagara Falls, one of the hottest tourism spots in Canada.

“It's no secret that we need more stores, especially here in Ontario,” explains Rachel Colic, president and chief strategist of YCREATIVE. “If we are going to create the billion dollar industry everyone talks about, easy-to-access retail is central to that strategy. Canada has been known for its exceptional cannabis worldwide for decades.”

Photo credit: Andre Furtado via Pexels

The world is watching

“I thought weed was legal here?!”—that exasperated question uttered by a frustrated tourist has stuck with me for nearly six months. At first I brushed it off as just a funny story: even in the cannabis industry, most days don't end watching business maven Colic roll American tourists some of that infamous Canadian cannabis—though I wouldn't complain if they did. It's not just a funny story though, it's a representation of our current approach to cannatourism. As an industry, it isn’t just a matter of one person's experience, these encounters are shaping Canada’s reputation on the global stage.

“Tourism is one of Canada's greatest opportunities for supporting Canadian brands and ensuring that we stay competitive on the ever-growing world stage. People all over the world are talking about Canada legalizing cannabis, they are looking to us to see how it can be done,” explains Colic. “When Americans, most especially, come here looking to partake in our free and open society and are met with disappointment it often means they won't come back.”

Right now ‘B.C. bud’ is known around the world as premium kush, according to Colic, but that dominance won't last. Nearing halfway into her year abroad, she is experiencing firsthand Canada's cannabis reputation overseas.

“The rest of the world is quickly coming online and there are many regions across the globe that will soon be renowned for their unique cannabis genetics,” says Colic. “We must find ways to remain competitive. To entice local and foreign customers to purchase Canadian brands, and to travel here to enjoy it from the source.”

Success against the odds

Now, it isn’t all fire and brimstone: despite the challenges, there are thriving businesses like Miz D’s own CannaTourism. She encourages visitors interested in experiencing Canadian cannabis to get advice from a professional or do their research ahead of time. This way, tourists are aware of local consumption spaces available and where they can find retail stores for products.

Canada can either be a cautionary tale or a success story in the world stage for cannabis tourism: trailblazers to follow or an example of what not to do. “Approach is everything,” says Miz D. “When there is support for the traveling cannabis enthusiast, cannatourism can be integrated to some degree in most hospitality, travel, and tourism businesses without alienating or offending existing clientele."