Did you know rural tourism and agri-tourism are rapidly expanding segments of Alberta’s tourism industry? From wineries to u-pick farms to corn mazes, Albertans are flocking to the farm to savour the rustic side of the province. If you’re looking for a tourism experience in your own back yard, here are three award-winning places to check out.
Since 2014, Alberta’s Growing Rural Tourism Conference in Camrose has hosted a competition that fosters the development of new travel experiences in Alberta. The Entrepreneurship Challenge prompts Albertans to pitch ideas for agri-tourism businesses. Of these initial entries, ten finalists are chosen to present their ideas at the conference to industry experts. The top three win prizes that include cash and a year of mentoring from industry experts. For many budding entrepreneurs, the year of mentorship may be the most valuable part of the prize—it provides the guidance to help them invest their dollars wisely.
Here are 2016 Entrepreneurship Challenge winners:
1st place: Rancho Relaxo Resort – Juli and Jeff Gillies of Taimi Soil Projects (10 kms east of Rocky Mountain House)
Rancho Relaxo Resort is a working permaculture demonstration farm that hosts families and groups of people that want to experience the ‘off-the-grid’ lifestyle. Guests are invited to stay and learn about ways they can implement some of these systems on their own property, whether it is an urban apartment or their own farm. Visitors can stay in log cabins, a teepee (heated, with solar electricity, used year-round and soon to be a pair of teepees), rooms in the house or dorm rooms that will be built in the near future for budget travellers.
Jeff Gillies, who with his wife Juli owns and operates the land, grew up on a farm near Viking and always wanted to be involved in agriculture. In 2010, he took a Permaculture Design Course and, “the light bulb went off,” Jeff says, “the course teaches you how to take a piece of land and make it as productive as it can be in terms of food, water and energy. We have five acres of land near Rocky Mountain House that we were doing very little with and it felt like a huge opportunity.”
Rancho Relaxo will officially open to the public in May, but the Gillies have already been reaching out to like-minded people across the world who have expertise or an interest in sustainable living. The family has already welcomed over 50 visitors from 14 different countries.
Guests can customize their experience and learn about organic soil science, renewable energy systems, food production systems, off-grid greenhouse design and water harvest. Visitors also get to partake in family meals made with local ingredients. Jeff promises that after a few days, visitors will feel the benefits of eating high-quality, natural foods in a pristine setting.
The Gillies also offer guided tours to many attractions in the province. Their land is at the gateway to the Rockies and they have knowledge of trails and beautiful spots near and far away. For international tourists this can be a great benefit, as unmarked trails or icy roads can be daunting for those unfamiliar with the province’s terrain.
2nd place: Canadian Rockies Mountain Bike Fest – Wanda Bogdane of Aspire Strategic (Canmore)
The Canadian Rockies Mountain Bike Fest aims to create a signature festival in the Alberta Rockies that rallies mountain bikers to celebrate the sport’s culture. The event will have something for everybody and is not only for serious cyclists—its intent is to grow the sport, bring the region together and produce a unique festival in the province.
The bike fest is the brainchild of Wanda Bogdane, who was getting ready to head down to Arizona for the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival. Wanda came up with the idea for the festival after attending the 2015 Fruita Fat Tire Festival in Colorado.
Wanda was on a beautiful bike ride 10 minutes outside Fruita and asked her friend, “Why on earth don’t we have something like this festival in Alberta’s Rockies?” Wanda had just resigned from a corporate job and her friend, knowing this, said, “I don’t know… why don’t you do it?”
After learning about the substantial economic impact of the Fruita festival, Wanda’s inspiration was in full force. She returned to Canmore and went to the Tourism Canmore Kananaskis office to see if there was strategic alignment for this opportunity. Local advisors were on board immediately. After completing a significant feasibility study, Wanda began the planning process—reaching out to stakeholder groups, forming alliances and creating a vision for the festival, which is set to launch in June of 2017.
The festival in Canmore will feature mountain biking locations across the Rocky Mountains. Wanda hopes to expand this into a travelling event staged out of different locations in different phases, but it isn’t a bike tour—it’s a stationary festival that will include spectator events such as a ‘Jump Jam,’ alongside participatory activities like friendly races, coaching clinics, group rides, kids activities, food vendors and beer gardens. A showcase of the latest in cycling gear, called Demo-Licious Days, will also be a highlight of the festival.
A unique aspect of Wanda’s business plan is the creation of a ‘regional trails fund’ from festival proceeds to support mountain biking trails across the province. “The fund would be available to mountain biking alliances across Alberta,” she says, “whether it be for signage, maintenance or creation—there are basic ways to enhance mountain biking in the province, and if I can contribute to this it makes it all complete for me.”
3rd place: Wildlife Camping Experience – Serena Bos of Discovery Wildlife Park (Innisfail)
The Discovery Wildlife Park has been in operation for over 25 years, providing permanent homes for wildlife who had an unfortunate start to life. 98 per cent of the animals are orphans or were previously illegal, exotic pets that have been recovered and can’t be re-introduced to the wild. Many of these animals are taught new skills by trainers at the park. The facility has attracted countless visitors, including world-renowned animal conservationist, Jack Hanna, who was so taken with the park that he dedicated an episode of his TV series to it.
Serena Bos grew up at the wildlife park surrounded by the animals. Her parents, Doug and Debbie, own the park and she works with the animals and on the business as a whole. Serena is also one of the animal trainers at the park and works with many of the animals, both on the farm and on movie sets.
The new travel experience that Serena pitched for the Entrepreneurship Challenge is a camping experience in the park, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the animals. Serena remarks that, “Since day one, people have asked what it’s like to live on the property—that it would be so cool to hear the animals at night, so we started our annual ‘night at the zoo’ fundraiser and it went over amazingly.”
Imagine hearing the roar of the lions as you sit around your campfire, or enjoying excursions and encounters with the animals under nightfall. Serena notes that, “The animals act differently at night, some are more active, and it’s so cool to be a part of it… this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—there is nowhere else that you can experience what we have to offer.”
Many of the animals at the Discovery Wildlife Park have starred in movies, TV shows and commercials. Serena works with the moose, deer, racoons and beavers at the park, while Ruth LaBarge, a Hollywood animal trainer for over 40 years, trains the Kodiaks.
The park’s method of taking in unfortunate wildlife and teaching them new skills has reaped rewards for the animals and the park, as it is now host to many notable four-legged stars. These include the only trained beaver in Canada and the only known trained duo of racoons that can work together on set. As the park’s website points out, the training is not just for the benefit of visitors or the film industry. Training is one of the highest forms of enrichment that animals in captivity can receive. This daily interaction gives animals something to look forward to, and the stimulus of learning is very rewarding.
There will be tent camping available this summer, and by 2017 the full campground will be complete with stalls for vehicles, full power, extra washroom facilities and a stocked trout pond that can be enjoyed by fishing enthusiasts and beginners.
If these three agri-tourism experiences piqued your interest, be sure to check out Open Farm Days on August 20 & 21 to sample the many agri-tourism businesses already thriving in Alberta. Enjoy your journeys!