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Decision by UPEI to end tourism contract comes in middle of 150th anniversary year
The decision by the province to transfer this year’s tourism data research to two groups with vested interests in the results makes the best of a bad situation. For the past eight years the Tourism Research Centre at UPEI has handled the tourist data for the province but the university suddenly ended that contract effective June 30.
The Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I. and P.E.I. 2014 Inc. are involved with the data research until the end of this fiscal year. The optics are not the best. Each group is anxious to see the best tourism numbers possible from this anniversary year of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864.
It was essential that complete data be collected in this important year for the province and the tourism sector. Tourism research is not just about numbers — tickets sold, room stays, airport, ferry and bridge traffic, overnight camping, park admissions, etc. Equally important are the exit surveys, where visitors are asked what they liked, didn’t like, how things can be improved and then using that information to make future plans.
It would be best to have groups doing the research without such close ties to government or tourism, but something had to be done, and done quickly. Both groups know they will be closely scrutinized and will take extra steps to act in a transparent manner and supply credible tourism data for the province and taxpayers.
The timing by UPEI could not have come at a worse time for the province. The tourism department was not told until the end of March that the contract was ending three months later and the scramble was on to find a replacement.
Some questions come to mind. Why wasn’t Tourism Minister Robert Henderson told the reason by UPEI for terminating the TRC contract and then why didn’t he ask the reason; why was the TRC decision not made public until just last week; and how can UPEI justify pulling the plug in the middle of such an important tourism year? But it seemed all parties were happy to keep this matter under wraps.
The minister said the TRC contract with the province was fully funded so why would UPEI’s on-going budget issues be seen as an issue? The province had spent approximately $2 million on the TRC since 2006.
TRC had its problems. A senior staff member was recently convicted of tax fraud and there were allegations that a former deputy minister of tourism was in a conflict of interest with the centre.
The university said there was no interest from any university staff to serve as faculty director. Past problems at the centre likely made the job unattractive for staff at the school of business which administered the TRC. So it’s no surprise the university was anxious to axe the centre.
Opposition tourism critic James Aylward is concerned the groups now responsible for tourism data must measure the impact of their own initiatives to increase visitation to P.E.I. this year and have a close connections to the department. Mr. Henderson said since P.E.I. 2014 Inc. will not exist after this year, there is no incentive for it to misrepresent the year’s tourism figures. Maybe it will morph into an at-arm’s-length tourism research centre next April?
Finally, why is P.E.I. 2014 Inc. providing $95,000 from its budget for the tourism research this year. Shouldn’t the department be paying the entire bill?