TORONTO - Canadians may be trying on Stetsons instead of swimsuits during this sluggish summer travel season and opting to visit the Calgary Stampede or other attractions closer to home rather than flying to beaches abroad, tourism experts predict.
The tourism industry is setting its sights on budget-cautious Canadians by focusing campaigns on local tourism and promoting the so-called "staycation."
"It's very much speaking to the whole concept of staying at home and discovering a part of Canada that you don't know about and discovering something within Canada that you didn't know existed," said Michele McKenzie, president and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
The Crown corporation recently launched a campaign showcasing the country's "vibrant cities" and "tropic-like waters," asking locals to share their secret summer getaways.
The Canadian tourism industry has been hit hard by the global economic crisis, with tour operators reporting their travel business down 15 per cent this year.
Adding to their stress, operators are having to deal with new passport rules for crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, and recent news suggesting that air traffic will be significantly lower in the months ahead, with the world's airlines projecting a collective loss of US $9 billion this year.
Those factors are forcing tourism boards nationwide to think local.
"Our largest market are residents. In Alberta, they account for more than half of the $5 billion or more we spend on tourism annually," said Don Boynton from Travel Alberta.
People living near major attractions are travelling shorter distances, and while travel is a discretionary expense, it's the last thing people are willing to give up, Boynton said.
Hotels may not be booked solid for the Calgary Stampede, which takes place in early July, but Boynton said the trend right now is for travellers to make last-minute vacation plans.
Newfoundland and Labrador has also campaigned vigorously to its own residents to discover the nooks and crannies of the entire province. Last week, it held a tourism awareness week and campaigned on a patriotic theme: "For the Love of Newfoundland and Labrador."
"We've done a resident campaign which basically targets the locals to get out and enjoy, as we say, 'your own backyard,"' said Bruce Sparkes, the chairman of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador.
He's anxious yet optimistic, hoping for a resurgence this summer after a bleak winter season that saw a drop of 25 to 30 per cent in reservations.
In Thunder Bay, Ont., the tourism board is splashing out a glossy visitor magazine at grocery stores, which highlights everything from culinary wonders like tours of the local gouda cheese plant to outdoors adventures like fishing expeditions.
"You get people more aware of all the attractions, events, all the little hidden gems around us that they take for granted," said Paul Pepe, the manager of tourism for the city of Thunder Bay.
"Once we've sold the city to ourselves, then we can really start selling it to visitors."
Residents will eventually become local ambassadors as they show family and friends what the city has to offer, he added.
But local tourism is not always a boon to everyone in the industry.
Jim Storie runs the Vancouver Trolley Company, which carts out-of-towners to key destinations around the city, such as Stanley Park and Gastown.
The old-fashioned, hop-on-hop-off tram is popular among first-time visitors, mostly from Europe. But Storie said locals and repeat visitors to Vancouver don't necessarily use the tour, and tourists in general seem to be pinching their pennies.
"Those people that have money are sitting on it and don't seem to be spending it as readily as they were in the past. A lot of people are working for companies or industries that are in distress," said Storie.
"It's a major concern and we've got a ways to go."