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Festival: Let's spread the spirit around

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Five-year-old Monica Claire, her mom Elizabeth Whitaker-Jacques and her niece Tianna Govia,11, goof around near one of their favourite snow sculptures at Festival du Voyageur Saturday afternoon.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Five-year-old Monica Claire, her mom Elizabeth Whitaker-Jacques and her niece Tianna Govia,11, goof around near one of their favourite snow sculptures at Festival du Voyageur Saturday afternoon. Photo Store

A highlight of a Winnipeg winter is underway with the famous Festival du Voyageur celebrating its 45th year. Thousands of Manitobans look forward to the annual event, including many local business owners who enjoy a boost in sales as we recognize our fur-trading heritage. A 2011 study found Festival generates $12 million in gross-economic activity over its 10-day run.

The considerable economic impact of festivals has long been recognized. These exciting events frequently provide new markets of visitors who spend hundreds of dollars per day on items such as food, lodging and souvenirs. In rural areas in particular, a popular festival can diversify the economy, with vendors, crafts people, restaurateurs and hoteliers making a significant portion of their yearly income in just one week or weekend.

These celebrations also generate significant social benefits, in large part because this is exactly what they are -- celebrations. They publicly showcase or fete a particular aspect of the community with locals and guests. In so doing, they foster a sense of togetherness and pride.

Yet, perhaps one of the most intriguing advantages of festivals is they frequently give new life to natural or historic spaces. Undoubtedly, many Winnipeggers feel an affinity for the fur trade thanks to their time spent at the historic Fort Gibraltar during Festival du Voyageur. Meanwhile, the biggest event at Birds Hill Provincial Park is the Winnipeg Folk Festival. And most Winnipeggers would likely agree the stately Exchange District National Historic Site truly comes to life during the two weeks of the enormously popular Winnipeg Fringe.

This phenomenon is worthy of note, considering the fact the managing bodies of various historic sites across the country are struggling to remain relevant to Canadians in order to boost falling visitor numbers. Finding ways to blend music and cultural celebrations into their current slate of offerings could be just what is needed to convince younger citizens, especially, to explore what they have to offer.

Interestingly, Parks Canada did exactly that last year when it partnered with CBCMusic to bring the "Quietest. Concert. Ever." to Banff National Park. The rock show, featuring the band Hedley, was set in the breathtaking Cascade Gardens. What made the production particularly noteworthy was the lack of a PA system; the only way the music could be heard was through headphones. This innovative approach delivered a unique and intimate musical experience, while helping fans explore one of the country's best national parks.

Here in Manitoba, are there opportunities for greater collaboration between historic sites or parks and festivals? Perhaps the province's other major fur trade post, Lower Fort Garry, could welcome a major musical gathering in the summer. The national historic site is one of the most picturesque venues in Western Canada, with gorgeous stone buildings dating back to the 1830s. Already, the managers of the lower fort seem to recognize the appeal of hosting non-traditional events: Last October, they offered a very popular ghost walk, complete with a historic tavern serving Fort Garry ale and hot chocolate with Bailey's. Playing host to a music festival where participants spend a summer evening lounging on the lawn beside the Red River, enjoying Manitoba food and drink and listening to some great local talent, could similarly make for a cool attraction.

This is just one example, but managers of historic or natural attractions across the province should consider something similar. By offering events boasting music, food, activities and local culture, historic sites could provide the authentic experiences festival-goers crave. Meanwhile, encouraging Manitobans to get out and explore their own province through appealing events could engender a connection to, and pride in, our history.

Besides bringing in revenue, these events would give new meaning to special natural and historical places while strengthening communities' sense of self. With festival tourism remaining one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourist industry, it would be realistic to think there is the potential for other sites to someday become as famous and beloved as Fort Gibraltar, thanks to their own major annual event.

 

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2014 A7

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