Canadian elite athlete sees culture as a key element in “the travel experience”

The person who sat beside me could be called a “celebrity”. After all, she is one of three elite athletes in Canada – a Canadian junior Pentathlon competitor. In 2008, she was the Junior National Champion, Senior Provincial Champion and represented Canada at the Junior Worlds in Cairo. The Modern Pentathlon website provides a more comprehensive insight into this gruelling event – five sports in one day. Competitors earn points for their performances in each of the five disciplines: pistol shooting, epee fencing, swimming, riding (equestrian show jumping) and cross-country running. Rachael is the recipient of the 2007 Stacey Levitt Women and Sport Scholarship.

Rachael Gardner, at once humble and wistful, smart and gracious consented to my request to ask her a number of questions about her global travels, and how those experiences have helped her to travel experiences, as a Canadian. After all, we had seven and a half hours from Montreal to Zurich….we were travelling. She to take part in a fencing competition in Budapest. Me, as a Canadian representative going to Austria to present a workshop about experiential tourism in an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) tourism seminar in Bregenz, the capital city of the province of Vorarlberg. You can download an excellent paper “The Impact of Culture on Tourism” here.

“Culture is the reason I like to travel.” Well, that opening line was amazing…because I was travelling to an OECD seminar, where I would be contributing to a discussion about the links between culture and tourism. “I like seeing the way people do things.”, she continued. ” I love the way people greet each other…In North America, a handshake. In Switzerland, three kisses, alternating cheeks. The French, two kisses, and in Mexico, one kiss.” Taxi drivers are amazing. They have stories to tell.” Listening to Rachael was both an exercise in being pragmatic and hopeful.

She loves travel, and understands and is concerned about the planetary impacts of travel. She shared some of her observations about sustainable practices in different countries, from low flush toilets to eating locally. “We are going to have to find a new source of energy for travel. I can’t see people stopping travel. There is no turning back. We will either disintegrate or make it (travel) sustainable.” That statement stopped me coldly. Pretty much it!

What are three things we can do immediately to travel in ways that emit less carbon, I wondered aloud?  Rachael suggested the following:

  1. When travelling locally in a foreign country, take public transit. Don’t rent a car. 
  2. Carry a water bottle (stainless steel) rather than buying plastic bottled water (where it is possible), a bowl, and spoon to eat locally. Go to the market and find local foods. Don’t buy packaged goods. 
  3. Take every means to go self-propelled. Go for a walk in the market. Seek out self-propelled experiences. Rent a bike. Walk, hike, canoe, take a gondola. . 

As she looks back at her country, through her eyes as a modern Pentathlon athlete and Canadian resident, she looks forward, with finger on her chin, and muses……”Travel makes me feel I know my own country better. We are polite. We are tolerant. We have pride in our toughness to our cold weather. We are hospitable to others. I have a disillusionment with conventional tourism. What I remember are marketplaces, not resorts. I love the taxi rides. I’t s not about the pyramids; it’s the Cairo feeling. I admire Europeans for their capacity to learn and be fluent in so many languages……South Americans are very friendly. Always, in travel, it’s the small things that I remember.”

As tourism leaders in Canada, let’s keep practising what Rachael suggests above. It’s who we are. It makes us authentic in the eyes of travellers. Let’s not get caught up in “selling stuff”, “selling hotel rooms”, or listing things on websites. As tourism business leaders, can we ask ourselves …”What’s the Toronto feeling? What’s the Riding Mountain feeling? What’s the Canadian folk music feeling? What’s a walk in a Canadian forest feel like? How does it feel to walk on water (snowshoe) or put one foot after the other on a beach at night on the north shore of Prince Edward Island?”

The Canadian experience is about feeling Canada, not selling stuff. The quicker we realize this, the quicker we will find guests travelling to Canada for the right reasons, to the right places in Canada, and for the right reasons. By integrating responsible tourism practices into every aspect of our business, we will be a world leader in sustainable tourism – that’s good competitive positioning as well! Download the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s (TIAC) Green Business toolkit now to find out easy steps to take to make your tourism business a green business leader.

Thank you Rachael, for your company on the plane flight. Thank you, also, for helping me to focus on making sure that I keep finding ways to keep “the Canadian experience” alive in every aspect of my tourism operation. I feel that we have a great representative for Canada, for the voice of youth, consciously making choices that opt for sustainable travel.

Earth Rhythms offers customized travel experiences in all seasons for travellers into Riding Mountain National Park.  We find ways for our guests to enjoy the Canadian experience in Manitoba.  Sustainable golfing, behind-the-scenes learning to make cane furniture, making Easter Breads with the Babas in Dauphin, or snow-shoeing off trail to track elk, moose, wolves, coyotes, and sometimes the ghostly traces of wings from owls or ravens.

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