Once a ‘stopping-for-just-a-minute’ place for travellers entering the province of New Brunswick through Quebec or Maine, a little inspiration and magic has developed Edmundston and the Madawaska region, tucked into the province’s northwest corner, into a year-round tourist destination.
This change in tourism patterns goes back to 2014, according to Joanne Bérubé-Gagné, Executive Director of the Edmundston Madawaska Tourism Office, who has held this office since 2003.
“That was when we questioned why we were only promoting two summer months when we were already at 90 percent capacity for them. So we switched our thinking and started marketing the other ten months and considered how to become a year-round destination,” she explains.
Stop and stay awhile
“We wanted to be a lot more than a place where people stopped en route to the rest of Atlantic Canada, so we started developing culinary products which needed to be on the menu 12 months of the year and not just in the summer, because otherwise the producers couldn’t survive.”
The year of 2014 was indeed a turning point for tourism. Not only did the marketing strategy change, but the region also proved it could successfully stage large events when it hosted the Acadian World Congress for the first time. This event, held every five years in different locations, brought more than 50,000 people to the region over two weeks, and produced a substantial economic spin-off.
Three years later, in 2017, the new arena opened. Located on the Edmundston campus of l’Université de Moncton, the Centre Jean-Daigle amphitheatre was designed to host major cultural, sporting, and community events. It features an NHL-size rink with 2,400 seats, and when configured for a show, has seating for 3,700. In addition, the atrium with a balcony overlooking the city can accommodate up to 1,000 at an event.
The centre is home to the Edmundston Blizzard Junior A Hockey team which plays in the Maritime Junior Hockey League. It also hosts interprovincial hockey tournaments, bringing in visitors and selling out games. The arena, along with Mont Farlagne’s ski hill, sets a popular stage for sports tourism.
The years between 2014 and 2019 were exceptionally good ones, says Bérubé-Gagné, with each year better than the one before. However, in March 2020, the pandemic lockdowns and severe travel restrictions (lasting into 2021) hurt businesses everywhere, including tourism in Edmundston Madawaska.
All together now
But not for long. Surprisingly positive things came out of the pandemic, according to Bérubé-Gagné. “What the pandemic did for us was to bring people closer together and force us to ask each other how we could partner to create this new product. ‘What is missing in the region and how can we create it together?’ There was a lot of collaborating to develop new businesses and new offerings,” she says.
“We’d been working on culinary tourism for 10 years, trying to get local products out front, and I think the pandemic helped us. We were isolated and people started working together, watching out for each other, and that created a new dynamic on the economic side. We were saying, ‘If there’s something we don’t have, why don’t we create it and start a small business, and we can partner with this one or that one.’ We saw a lot of that and it created a new synergy among entrepreneurs.”
Now there are two microbreweries whose products use local ingredients. Les Brasseurs du Petit-Sault, with labels that celebrate local history and culture, offers tastings for 14 products, including six unique seasonal beers infused with locally produced fruit. Then there’s Microbrasserie Ateepic, whose products are on the menu at the Edmundston Fraser Golf Club.
A local winery, meanwhile, has partnered with a local haskap berry producer to make a fruit wine. Another food production business is mixing haskap with maple to produce a syrup for coffee toppings, while a local pizza restaurant has partnered with a new cheese factory.
Putting nature on the list
Tourism industry entrepreneurs are also partnering with the natural beauty of the Madawaska region to create new product offerings. Two companies, Ekö Nature Glamping at Lac Baker and Quisibis Domes at Riviére-Verte, offer visitors the ultimate glamping experience in luxurious geodesic domes, the roofs of which feature windows to allow for stargazing. Lac Baker, good for swimming, has a new walking trail that links it to Edmundston, while canoes and kayaks can be rented at Riviére-Verte.
Mont Farlagne, with elevations between 150 and 338 metres, just minutes from downtown Edmundston, has long been a popular alpine ski and snowboarding hill, but now has morphed into a four-season outdoor centre, with 60 kilometres of mountain biking trails, outdoor events, and a lodge with live music, snack bar, and restaurant.
Meanwhile, the Grey Rock Power Centre, located on the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, which includes the Grey Rock Casino with over 250 slots and hybrid tables, a hotel and conference centre, several restaurants, and retail outlets, has also become home to Grey Rock Adventures. Its offerings include snowmobile, ATV, and Side by Side guided tour packages for groups with different experience levels. With the commercial hub now well established and profitable, Bérubé-Gagné believes the next step for the centre, already an important tourism partner, will be to develop a First Nations culture and heritage project in the next few years.
Another natural attraction is the New Brunswick Botanical Garden, a 7-hectare garden located next door to the Provincial Park with over 80,000 plants arranged in thematic gardens with sculptures, a café, and an herbal workshop. It’s located next to the Madawaska River in the Saint-Jacques neighbourhood and is the largest arboretum east of Montreal.
The garden officially closes at the end of September, but by extending the season through festivals in October and November, such as the Grande Grouille, when thousands of illuminated pumpkins light up the gardens at night while musicians perform, and Jardin Emballé, a Christmas market with more than 50 exhibitors showcasing local products, artwork and fine crafts, thousands of visitors are drawn in.
A future so bright
Speaking of festivals, the events committee is focused on having something every weekend and has developed a new strategy to attract national organizations to the area for major events.
“We participated in the Sport Congress in Vancouver earlier this year and we’ve started looking into some big events. In the next year or so, our name could be on bids or proposals to attract some of those activities.” Bérubé-Gagné also plans to revive her attendance at travel shows in Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Halifax—something she’d always done pre-pandemic—and connect with tour bus operators.
In terms of future growth, she sees definite advantages to maintaining membership in the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), “because it keeps us informed about what’s going on in Ottawa. They worked hard during COVID to get information out, and they don’t forget about the smaller places.”
Edmundston Madawaska is “back at full speed,” she says. “We’ve grown our numbers and our hotels have higher occupancy than we had in 2019. Our industry not only survived, but encompassed bigger growth than all the other industries put together, and we are starting to see a return on our investments. We’ve done that by continuing to develop the tourism product that began during the pandemic when a new wave of entrepreneurs started partnering and creating some really good products to offer visitors.”
Most of the tourism development, she notes, has not been driven by government subsidies, but instead was achieved by the private sector. It’s people from New Brunswick who are investing in their region, people who are committed and determined to make it work, with the larger community in full support.