Is it high time for Canadian cannabis tourism?

As the misunderstood plant emerges from almost a century of prohibition, tourism operators are seizing their chance to provide opportunities for the discovery and safe consumption of cannabis

  • Dec 09, 2021
  • 888 words
  • 4 minutes
A cannabis tour with Cannanaskis Tours at Calgary’s Heritage Park. (Photo: Kyle Thiessen/Cannanaskis Tours)
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Dave Dormer isn’t who you’d expect to find at the forefront of Canada’s budding cannabis tourism industry. The veteran Calgary-based journalist has covered everything from crime stories for Sun Media to culture and politics for the CBC and CTV. He’s a reporter passionate about the truth — and that passion has flowed into educating everyone about the history of cannabis.  

“We were lied to for 94 years about an amazing plant that has aided humans for millennia,” he tells me over Zoom. “There’s a lot of reprogramming to do, a lot to learn, and a lot of fun to be had.” 

Dormer launched Cannanaskis Cannabis Tours in 2018, inspired by the beauty of the Rockies and his fascination with the history and usage of cannabis. Dave dismisses what he calls “Cheech and Chong Hot Box Tours” that appeal to students looking to party. Instead, he offers his guests transport, storytelling, a gourmet meal, education, and the opportunity to consume in a safe and interesting environment.   

Although British Columbia is often associated with Canada’s most potent cannabis, it was Alberta that quickly recognized the potential of legalization. When Ontario and B.C. had just a handful of stores, Alberta had already issued hundreds of licenses. Still, public consumption remains illegal in many towns and cities in the province, including Calgary. Unlike a wine or brewery tour, you cannot visit producers to sample product. You can however learn about the fascinating history of cannabis, from the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia to modern prohibition and cultivation. You can also visit and consume inside provincial parks, where Dormer takes guests for lunch and Rocky Mountain views in the summer months. He also struck a deal with management at Calgary’s Heritage Park, where he is allowed to operate away from crowds or minors, and with FivePoint dispensary in Bridgeland, where guests can purchase legal cannabis product if desired.

“One of my first groups was a couple in their 60s who used cannabis decades ago as students. Like so many other people, they were curious but intimidated by all the strains and products, and just getting used to the fact that it’s actually legal,” says Dormer. “They just needed a safe space and someone to help them navigate the waters.”

Linsay Sunderland and Dave Dormer of Cannanaskis Cannabis Tours, which offer guests the opportunity to consume in a safe and interesting environment. (Photo: Kyle Thiessen/Cannanaskis Tours)
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The water is understandably muddy from decades of misinformation, the failed War on Drugs, aggressive lobbying by the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, misguided public health policy, and bureaucratic red tape. Since Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, the federal government oversees production, provinces oversee sales, and municipalities oversee consumption. Along with the challenges of Covid, it’s a sizable hurdle for the budding new tourism sector. 

Amsterdam has long been associated with cannabis tourism, where weed was famously tolerated if not legalized. When several U.S. states legalized cannabis, Colorado quickly took off as perhaps the world’s most progressive cannabis destination. In just eight years, cannabis has become one of the state’s major tourism segments, generating hundreds of millions in spending and attracting millions of visitors. Could Alberta become the Colorado of Canada? 

“People aren’t going to come to Calgary to use cannabis, but they are going to come see the Rocky Mountains, and use cannabis. The landscape is spectacular. There’s so much opportunity to get out there early and become known as a global cannabis destination,” says Dormer.    

Recreational cannabis is clearly big business, and despite being ravaged by the pandemic, so is tourism. You don’t need to read pot leaves to see where this is heading.

Global, regulated cannabis tourism is still in its infancy. As far as Dormer knows, he offers the world’s only historical cannabis tour. In Kelowna, B.C., Wicked Tours offer a ‘Buds and Suds’ cannabis tour that includes a private tour of a licensed cannabis facility, a private appointment at a dispensary, plus a visit to a local craft brewery. Over in Prince Edward Island, the province gave hotels the option to allow in-room consumption of recreational cannabis, recognizing the potential of cannabis tourism for Canada’s self-proclaimed “food island.” This year saw the third annual New Heights Cannabis Tourism Summit, which brought together entrepreneurs, producers, tourism organizations, brand marketers, policy-makers and retailers.  Results were also shared of an extensive study into Canada’s cannabis tourism potential, led by a University of Guelph Postdoctoral Fellow. According to Bloomberg, over $1 billion in excise taxes have been collected by the federal and provincial governments since legalization, fuelled by a $4 billion-plus market expected to double in the next decade. Recreational cannabis is clearly big business, and despite being ravaged by the pandemic, so is tourism. You don’t need to read pot leaves to see where this is heading.  

The Cannabis Council of Canada believes cannabis tourism will dramatically increase as producers look for new ways to appeal to consumers, although current regulations prohibit visits to fields or on-site consumption. Many legal minefields will have to be crossed before cannabis tours can compete with wine or beer tours, complete with “tasting” rooms or the ability for guests to stroll through “vineyards” of lush, fragrant weed. 

Until then, cannabis tourism is being driven by folks like Dormer, literally, in his 12-passenger van. Encouragingly, his passion project continues to double in growth in every year, and that includes the lost tourism year of Covid. 

“My clients want to be safe and somewhere beautiful, dine on steak or halibut, get educated, have fun, and avoid unnecessary judgement,” says Dormer. Many local or international tourists have no desire to visit nightclubs, concerts or bars to get high and party. Location and logistics are critical to the success of a cannabis tour, and it has to be done right, he adds.

Licensed and insured, Dormer refuses to give authorities an excuse to clamp down on an experience that offers so much for adults taking their first, tentative steps into — or revisiting — the brave new world of cannabis. As the infamous plant emerges from almost a century of prohibition, expect a future where beautiful wine routes like Tuscany share bucket list column inches with spectacular weed routes like the Rockies. 

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