UPEI axes Tourism Research Centre

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 3, 2014

Tourism Minister Robert Henderson says visitors are increasingly turning to computers and mobile devices to get information about Prince Edward Island rather than ordering a copy of the annual Visitor Guide.

©Guardian by Heather Taweel

After almost a decade in operation and close to $2 million in provincial support, the Tourism Research Centre at UPEI has been axed.

The university informed the P.E.I. government of its intention to close the TRC at the end of March, leaving provincial officials scrambling to come up with an alternative to measure this year’s tourism statistics.

No one from the university was made available for an interview, but a spokesperson told The Guardian a variety of factors played into the decision to dissolve the TRC.

One key factor was that there was no interest from any university staff to serve as faculty director.

“Most research centres at universities are led by a faculty member who is not paid for this activity, but is given course release from teaching,” UPEI media relations officer Sheila Kerry wrote in an email to The Guardian.

“Therefore, after looking at its viability in moving forward, the university decided to close the centre, as it was deemed unsustainable after its current contracts were finished.”

Tourism Minister Robert Henderson says he does not fully know why UPEI made the decision to close the centre, speculating it might have been a result of UPEI’s ongoing budget challenges.

He was merely informed by the university in March the TRC would be closing on June 30.

“Our funding has been extremely stable since 2006, so the core funding that we were providing hasn’t really changed,” Henderson said. “We were kind of caught somewhat off-guard by it in that regard, but it’s up to them, they make their own decisions.”

Since the TRC planned to close in the middle of the tourism year, the department was left trying to coming up with a plan on how to continue the work that has been performed by the TRC since 2006.

Timing was especially important, as this year has been touted as a major tourism year for the province with the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Charlottetown Conference in full swing.

“We feel it was extremely important especially this year, that we continue with our exit surveys, make sure we monitor and get feedback on some of the various events,” Henderson said.

“All those things are important to get a sense from our visitors of what did they like, what they didn’t like, what are ways that we can improve and assimilate that information and make decisions based on hard facts.”

That’s why Tourism P.E.I. has now entered into an agreement with the Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I. and P.E.I. 2014 Inc. to continue this year’s tourism data research. Two former TRC staffers have been hired to perform the research, in an effort to streamline the transition and ensure continuity.

P.E.I. 2014 Inc. is providing $95,000 from its budget for the research this year, while the remaining $205,000 is coming from Tourism P.E.I.

But Opposition tourism critic James Aylward says he is concerned over the fact P.E.I. 2014 Inc. is one of the bodies responsible for measuring the impact of its own initiatives to increase visitation to P.E.I. this year. He suggests a conflict of interest could perhaps exist.

“How can you count on those numbers being solely independent when you’ve got an organization now that’s directly tied to the Department of Tourism being responsible for doing exit surveys and being responsible to tabulating numbers versus having an organization that is arms-length?” Aylward said.

“How accurate are those numbers going to be?”

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.

“This is just really the final evaluation of the whole way we’ve invested money over the last three or four years into this celebration,” Henderson said.

“We were caught with really short notice in this information that UPEI has decided to shut down the Tourism Research Centre, so this is something that we had to do fairly quickly,” he added.

The tourism research agreement with TIAPEI and P.E.I. 2014 Inc. is in place until the end of the fiscal year.

The department is currently working on a plan on how to handle future tourism research.