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Canada — the next Napa Valley of cannabis?

Social media advertising bans and a lack of government support mean cannabis tourism is struggling to get off the ground, say researchers and operators.
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The early fall harvest at Good Buds on Salt Spring Island, B.C., in September 2020.

Picture the lush green vineyards, gourmet food and the meandering wine tasting tours of California’s Napa Valley. Now replace wine with weed and California with Canada — and ask yourself the question, suggest researchers in a recent study, could the Great White North become a Mecca for cannabis tourism? 

On Oct. 17, 2018, Canada’s federal government passed bill C-45, legalizing the cultivation, processing, selling, and possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis for recreational use. 

When Newfoundlander Ian Power became the first person in Canada to purchase legal cannabis, he told the press the legal victory would be immortalized forever.

“I’m not even going to smoke it,” Power told CTV at the time. “It’s going to be vacuum-sealed and put on the wall with a plaque that says tonight’s date and underneath it ‘we won.’”

Fast forward over three years, and hundreds of cannabis shops have popped up in cities and towns across Canada, selling everything from dried buds (re-branded “flowers”) to THC-infused gummy bears. For many, what was once a “deviant” drug has become synonymous with a six-pack of beer.   

“Increasingly, cannabis is considered a 'lifestyle choice' and is commonly consumed by many Canadians in their leisure time,” wrote researchers Susan Dupej of the University of Guelph, and Sanjay Nepal, a geographer at the University of Waterloo, in a recent study published in the journal Tourism Review International

Could it also offer a fresh draw for an international tourism market stunted by pandemic? 

To answer that question, Dupej and Nepal created a database of all tourism-related cannabis businesses in Canada between 2018 and 2020. The authors found companies offering a “normalized" cannabis tourism experience through news stories, social media, industry groups, consumer trade shows and industry conferences.  

“Also, going on several tours allowed for information to be collected by way of direct observation and first-hand experience as a cannabis tourist,” they noted.

On the accommodation side, the researchers tallied everything from boutique hotels and yurt rentals to “Bud and Breakfasts” offering unique getaways and spas.

In other cases, they found companies offering cannabis tastings and pairings alongside cooking classes. Some offered grow room tours, joint-rolling classes and glass blowing demonstrations. 

Also on the list — companies advertising cannabis concierge travel services, “puff and paint” events as well as themed weddings and bachelor or bachelorette parties.

A TOWN RALLIES AROUND CANNABIS

Some communities are doing everything they can to support the nascent industry.

In 2020, the town Smiths Falls, Ont., launched a three-year economic development strategy around cannabis tourism. 

“Smiths Falls has evolved from our blue-collar industrial past and has the potential to become the Silicon Valley of the cannabis industry,” Mayor Shawn Pankow is quoted telling U.S. Congress in a 2019 document outlining the town’s cannabis tourism strategy.

“We are experiencing an economic and social rebirth like nothing we had ever experienced before.”

Home of Canopy Growth, then the world’s largest licensed cannabis producer, and “Rolling Greens,” North America’s first cannabis-themed golf course, Smiths Falls has set its sights on becoming the top cannabis tourism destination in Canada. But it’s certainly not the only one. 

In some parts of the country, luxury tour operators offer what researchers Dupej and Nepal describe as “novelty experiences,” where guests are helicoptered into the wilderness for a “glamping” experience. 

Companies catering to guests looking for something more down to earth conduct guided backcountry cannabis canoe trips to provincial parks, or cannabis-heightened skiing, snowmobiling or fishing.

Like many industries, policies that support cannabis tourism have obstacles to overcome, not least of all finding ways to reduce emissions from indoor grow operations. 

One study published last year found that growing one ounce of indoor-grown cannabis in the U.S. released the emissions equivalent to burning a full tank of gas. That means that someone choosing to smoke a joint would have a higher carbon footprint than someone opting for a pint of beer or glass of wine.

How much emissions an indoor grow-op emitted largely depended on how dirty the energy grid was and how much heat and air conditioning was necessary to create an artificial climate.

Grids built on hydroelectricity, such as Quebec and British Columbia, could offer significant reductions. But so too could alternative grow facilities, like greenhouse or outdoor growing operations, which in some cases have been found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96 per cent.

Another benefit of growing outdoors? A warming planet could yield more cannabis bumber crops, as some producers experienced during the 2021 B.C. heat dome.

COULD CANNABIS JUMP-START A STRUGGLING TOURISM INDUSTRY?

Based out of Kelowna, B.C., Nicholas Wilson has been guiding visitors around the South Okanagan for years, educating people on microclimates, grape varieties and nuances of the region's wine. 

In the summer of 2019, his company, Wicked Wine Tours, launched Wicked Weed Tours in response to growing demand. 

Using a fleet of small vans, the tour operator picks guests up at their hotels and takes them to a cannabis farm where they learn about how cannabis interacts with the body, and the differences between varieties of hemp, indica and sativa strains. Guests are then offered a private appointment at a dispensary where they can purchase cannabis and given a swag bag at the end. 

“Lots of folks have smoked a joint,” said Wilson. “But cannabis tourism is so new we have to educate.”

“It’s like walking into a liquor store and nobody knowing the difference between Scotch and other whiskies. That’s where we are right now.” 

From the start, the tours have attracted a wide range of ages, from curious newbies to enthusiastic connoisseurs.

With COVID-19 restrictions easing in the province, Wilson says demand is growing once again, and he expects a busy summer.

The industry bottleneck, he says, are advertising platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which next to steroids and human growth hormones, have blanket bans on promoting cannabis and other drug-related paraphernalia. As a result, Wilson says the cannabis tourism industry needs backing from all levels of government to get the word out and put Canada on the cannabis tourism map.

As researchers Dupej and Nepal put it, “Cannabis legalization in Canada has created a new landscape for tourism.” Once a “highly demonized and secretive substance,” cannabis has become a “feature, or attraction, that is embraced and celebrated by, and sold to, the public.” 

“There’s appetite,” added Wilson. “We’re really not doing anything or celebrating it.”

“Municipal and provincial governments, federal ministers — they need to get on board and see it as a vital part of tourism.”

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