Ottawa's tourism industry not rushing to go to pot

Local businesses taking a wait-and-see attitude toward cannabis-related activities while provincial legislation gets sorted out
cannabis farm
Stock photo for representation purposes only.

An April Fools’ Day prank made it crystal clear to Brad Campeau that Ottawa is ready to embrace cannabis-driven tourism with open arms.

The owner of Brew Donkey, a company that runs tours of local craft breweries, decided to have a little fun with his customers on April 1 of last year. He announced he was launching a new service, Ganja Mule, that would offer “exclusive guided tours” of Smiths Falls-based medical pot producer Tweed, giving customers “a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to grow cannabis.”

Passengers would be transported to and from the former Hershey chocolate factory that is now home to Tweed’s local production facility in the “cannabus” ​– a high-tech vehicle equipped with custom features that included “augmented reality, driver air-filtration and fresh local food.”

Cannabis-curious citizens flocked to register at ganjamule.ca, the domain name Campeau and his team had set up. There, they were informed that, sadly, the joke was on them – though their disappointment was tempered somewhat by Campeau’s offer of $4.20 off any of Brew Donkey’s legitimate tours.

Yet as light-hearted as the gag was, it showed Campeau that cannabis-based tourism has the potential to be serious business in Ottawa.

“We got a lot of clicks and a lot of people told us they were ready to book,” the local entrepreneur said. “There’s definitely a taste for this kind of experience.”

"There's definitely a taste for this kind of experience."

That’s already been amply demonstrated south of the border in states where adult use of cannabis is legal. In Colorado, where pot has been legal since 2012, the state’s department of revenue says cannabis tourism has grown 51 per cent in the past four years. In 2016 alone, the agency said, the state drew 6.5 million travellers who took part in “marijuana-related activities.”

With weed set to be legalized for recreational use across Canada as of Oct. 17, some businesses on this side of the border are already rushing to target what they hope will be an influx of foreign travellers keen on sampling the substance.

Dispensary tours

A company called Canadian Kush Tours, for example, includes activities such as cooking and growing classes in its bus and limousine tour packages of vapour lounges and dispensaries in downtown Toronto. In British Columbia, operators such as Victoria’s Canna Tours and Vancouver’s Alternative Med Tours give customers an inside look at dispensaries in those cities.

Now, eastern Ontario’s own Tweed has jumped on the tourism bandwagon. A willing participant in last year’s Brew Donkey prank, the Canadian cannabis giant showed its interest in the tourism space was no joke when it opened a visitor’s centre at its Smiths Falls production centre in late August.

Tweed is now offering guided tours of its 500,000-square-foot operation, giving visitors a “bird’s-eye view” of how cannabis is grown while educating them on the plant, its history and its impact on North American culture, with exhibits touching on everything from the “Reefer Madness” scare of the 1930s to pot’s prominent role in the hippy movement of the ’60s.

In its previous incarnation as a Hershey factory, Tweed’s building used to draw up to 400,000 visitors a year. Company spokesperson Caitlin O’Hara said she hopes pot will capture tourists’ fancy every bit as much as chocolate.  

“We really want Smiths Falls to be a tourism destination for those visiting eastern Ontario,” she said.

But Tweed won’t be hawking its products as part of the tours ​– at least not yet. And if you’re a visitor hoping to get your ganja fix in the nation’s capital, you’re out of luck here too.

Ottawa Tourism spokesperson Jantine Van Kregten said that when the agency asked its members in its March newsletter if they planned to launch cannabis-related activities, not one responded.

“Cannabis tourism in Ottawa will be driven by our members,” she said in an email to OBJ. “If there are cannabis-related tourism opportunities that they develop, we will promote them.”

Van Kregten said there are “still a lot of unanswered questions” about how legal cannabis will roll out across the province, noting the new Tory government’s recent decision to ditch the previous plan to keep cannabis sales under the control of the Ontario liquor board. The province said in August it now plans to oversee the sale of pot online as of Oct. 17 and allow private retailers to open shop next April.

Over at Brew Donkey, Campeau says he still owns the ganjamule.ca domain name and remains “excited about the prospect” of one day sparking up his cannabis tour operation. But for now, he says, he needs more direction on what sort of activities he would be able to offer.

“People want to get what we’re providing, which is that behind-the-scenes experience. And if we can’t get that from the industry because of legislation, then we won’t have the launch. There won’t be a point to it.”