With files from Shea Wind.
It was one part local tourism, one part solid marketing, and one part Amazing Race. The 17th annual Tourism Challenge encouraged tourism industry staff and volunteers to take as many daytrips as possible to the Lower Mainland’s tourist hotspots (or lukewarm spots) over a six-week period.
This year’s rendition of the Tourism Challenge featured a “passport” to be filled up with stamps, which could be collected at each of the tourist destinations. More than 100 attractions, hotels, and neighbourhoods offered stamps, and although the challenge focused on Vancouver, the destinations ranged all the way from Whistler to Hell’s Gate. More than 20,000 tourism industry participants in Lower Mainland take part in the challenge each year, collecting stamps and filling up their passports.
It’s not really a race, but there is a little bit of effort required at each of the attractions. Maybe you’re answering questions, requiring you to read some of the exhibit. Or maybe you need to complete an activity and report back to an employee for your stamp. In Gastown we had to search for a specific address and count the windows on an orange apartment building. At Burnaby Village we were asked to find the name of the blacksmith shop — a trick question, as it turns out. We learned the history of Granville Island through a Foodie Tour of its public market, and learned it is the second most visited tourist destination in Canada next to Niagara Falls.
Most of the attractions were concentrated in Vancouver, such as museums and art galleries, the Greater Vancouver Zoo, and historical sites along Highway 1, making them transitable by folks living and working closer to the city. Most, but not all.
Discovering history along the Fraser River
As Fraser Valley residents, trekking into Vancouver to collect stamps was not ideal. But we still wanted to complete the challenge for a chance to win some of the excellent prizes — like WestJet flights, and a Rocky Mountaineering package.
We quickly realized that although most of the attractions only offered one stamp each, some of the ones closer to home offered two or three per visit — so, with limited weekends and some strategic planning, we set out to become local tourists in our own surrounding communities.
It’s that place you drive by every year on your way to the Okanagan. Maybe you stopped in with your parents as a kid, but you don’t really remember. You think there was ice cream.
The tram takes you down the side of the Cascadia Mountains, across the Fraser, to a landing at the base of the Pacific Coastal Mountains. Bring your camera.
We thought walking across the suspension bridge with our ice cream was a good idea. About halfway across we had to stop, or else we might’ve lost our dessert through the caged floor to the raging river below.
We didn’t know what to expect with this historic site — entirely missable if you take the Coquihalla Highway, which many of us do.
Located off Highway 1 just north of Hope, Yale was once the largest city north of San Francisco. It served as an Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, a Gold Rush stop, a main terminal for Cariboo Wagon Road construction, and eventually the headquarters for the Canadian Pacific Railway. But you’d never know it to look at it today.
Yale took the prize for biggest surprise history gem, with its detailed reenactments and activities.
To get our stamps we were asked to turn ourselves in for a period-specific crime at the local jail by entering it into the leger. You’re looking at the baddest train-robbing duo this side of the Rockies.
Then I got to try my hand at cracking their safe.
Kilby Historic Site
The Kilby Historic site is tucked away just off the Lougheed Highway, where Harrison River meets the Fraser.
We explored the Manchester House Hotel and an intriguing exhibit detailing the Sasquatch myth, complete with plaster footprint casts.
The highlight, as it usually is for us, was the interactive farm, where we made friends with some very muddy pigs.
Powerhouse at Stave Falls
You know the dam — you’ve driven across it to get to the prime swimming spots behind Mission. But did you know you can go inside?
After attempting (and failing) to pass through a downed powerline simulation without dying, we were treated to a shocking Tesla coil demonstration before descending into the bowels of the historic dam.
Maple Ridge Museum
The museum is a cute little house off Lougheed Highway, dedicated to documenting the development of the area north of the Fraser River. It’s suggested that early settlers on the Langley side pointed across and decided to set up shop on the opposite bank. Eventually developing into a booming brick factory town, the museum boasts its connection to the industrial development of the Lower Mainland.
The gem of this museum lies in the basement, where the Dewdney-Alouette Railway Society displays their historically accurate model of Port Haney as it was in 1926. Developed from archival photos with an acute attention to detail, no element is overlooked for these enthusiasts.
Greater Vancouver Zoo
I honestly can’t remember the last time I was at the zoo. I have faded memories of visiting animals in Stanley Park, and I know I probably day-camped at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, but the opportunity to discover it through the passport challenge with some of my favourite little dudes brought a whole new perspective.
We trekked through the exhibits, saying hello to the free-roaming peacock and hungry lions before answering questions about local wildlife conservation efforts.
More than just an adorable historical town with a solid local business draw and plenty of film location credits, the fort at Fort Langley stands as the “Birthplace of BC,” where the HBC fur trade and Gold Rush fever collide in immersive reenactment.
With a sprawling grass field and the fully licensed Lelem’ at the Fort cafe inside, the Fort is as much a history lesson as a relaxing place to hang out for lunch. There are even rentable tents that can be booked through Parks Canada if you want to extend your stay — but they book plenty of months in advance, so plan ahead, way ahead.
Langley Centennial Museum
Our adventure started and ends here.
The Langley Centennial Museum is on the corner of King and Mavis in Fort Langley. With a commitment to Langley-based history, the permanent exhibit showcases daily life for residents throughout history. Many of its items were donated by local prominent families.
The Tourism Challenge is a unique tool for attractions like LCM, not just for employee and volunteer recognition, but for marketing. Jeff Chenatte, acting cultural services manager at the museum, explains the benefits of participating in the program.
“Well over a thousand individuals have come through our doors in the past few weeks on this program; they spend money in our gift shop and leave and return to their positions in the hospitality industry well-versed in all that LCM and Fort Langley has to offer,” he says.
“We are looking at ways of further capitalizing on the program through related promotions in the community or links to social marketing, but that will have to wait until next year.”
There’s something missing…
We were pretty sure our progress would take us in a big circle if you plotted all the non-Vancouver destinations on a map.
So we did.
Conclusion: there are some key communities missing from this program.
Why can I trace a circle of Tourism Challenge attractions right around core of the Fraser Valley communities? At first glance I would assume because it is a primarily Vancouver-based program. But that doesn’t account for the vast number of outliers from Whistler to Hell’s Gate.
For six weeks I was a tourist in the province I grew up in, visiting attractions I’d seen on highway signs and had never given a second thought to. I learned more about BC’s history than I’d ever picked up through 20 years of education in this province.
Surely Fraser Valley communities would benefit from the kind of exposure, community-building, and knowledge-sharing that happens through a program like this. Instead of tourists passing through Mission, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack, give them a reason to stop and learn something.