The highway tourist centre at Walsh will not open this summer as the province hopes more people who visit the province by car will browse offerings online.

That was revealed March 2 at Medicine Hat city council as the group that operates the centre on the Trans-Canada Highway at the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, as well as similar services for the City of Medicine Hat, presented its 2019 annual report.

Jace Anderson, the executive director of the Destination Marketing Association, said Walsh is one of several “gateway tourist centres” on Alberta’s edges that will not open in two months.

“It’s part of a larger strategy by the government,” said Anderson, who said his agency was informed of the change in mid-February, and “what impact it will have on us, we don’t know yet.”

Since 2016, the DMO had operated the Walsh centre on contract for $69,000 per year. That allowed them to hire four full-time tourist consultants to greet visitors seven days per week during the summer travel season. A total of 22,000 visitors stopped, equalling about 180 per day.

During the same time frame, about 20,000 stopped at the city-run visitor information centre near the TCH at College Avenue, and now Anderson hopes for higher numbers locally, which becomes the first centre for travellers heading west into southern Alberta.

He told the Medicine Hat News that his group is accepting the decision to end the contract and is concentrating on how the Medicine Hat centre could pick up any potential slack.

“We know, and have the data that shows, that when we talk to people, we can get them to stay,” he said.

An otherwise upbeat annual report was greeted enthusiastically by council members.

The group saw significant growth in several key indicators, such as hotel occupancy, partnerships and website referrals to local businesses, said Anderson. Almost all metrics were “healthy,” he said.

Coun. Brian Varga, who represents council on the Badlands Tourism board and the Medicine Hat Sport and Event Council, said the province has set the goal of doubling tourism spending in the province to $20 billion over the next 10 years.

That’s ambitious, he said, but will require substantial planning and work.

“It’s a big deal,” he said.

Locally, the city hosted the World Under-17 World Hockey Challenge tournament in conjunction with Swift Current last fall, and is preparing to welcome thousands of members of the Jehovah’s Witness Church to a convention this June at the Canalta Centre.

The group also supported the development of a Miywasin Society multi-site tour that dealt with First Nations history in the region. Last year, participation doubled on the breweries tour and the “Big Paddle” promotion that sees canoeists and kayakers travel en masse between Echo Dale Regional Park and downtown.

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