Fort MacMurray, Alberta,
becomes celestial tourist draw:
Hundreds of Japanese come to oilsands hub
in first holiday charter to
The Edmonton Journal; Sunday, February 19, 2006
EDMONTON -- Two chartered jets full of tourists arrived in
Edmonton on Saturday, drawn from halfway around the world by one of the
leading lights of Alberta tourism.
Their destination: not the always-
popular Rockies, but the not so well-travelled moonscape of northern
Alberta, where 640 Japanese vacationers hope to revel in the aurora
borealis, or northern lights.
"Most people see the aurora as a thing of beautiful phenomena in the
northern sky," said Shigeyuki Minami, whose group heads to Fort McMurray
today to view the lights.
This is the first northern lights tour of Alberta to come from Japan, with
another planeload of visitors expected next week.
Minami, chairman of the electrical engineering department at Japan's Osaka
City University, is so interested in the aurora that he's been to Canada six
times to see it. So interested, he replicated the experience in a vacuum
tube on the lab bench.
Japanese are fascinated by the aurora because it's a part of nature not
available at home and can't be duplicated in all its grandeur by science and
technology, Minami said.
He and his party overnighted in Edmonton before taking a six-hour bus ride
today to pursue their elusive pastime in the bleak landscape of an area
north of Fort McMurray.
"This, for me, is what I want -- a frontier walk," Minami said.
Akima and Satoru Kyoko looked up the City of Edmonton's website and decided
to come when they heard that All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd., a charter company,
was planning a trip to the northern lights.
A pack of mascots, civic officials and staff from Fort Edmonton in period
costume were on hand to greet the Japanese arrivals.
Edmonton Tourism and Travel Alberta officials said the charters could kick
off a tourist boom outside the Rocky Mountains.
"These flights coming to Edmonton is really a significant opportunity for
Edmonton and Northern Alberta," said Derek Coke-Kerr, managing director of
The province is pouring more money into tourism promotion in developing
markets that show good potential, rather than chasing new markets that may
not pay off, Coke-Kerr said.
"We are pursuing those areas more aggressively."
Ken Fiske, vice-president of tourism for Edmonton Economic Development, said
the charter tours provide terrific exposure for the city at a time of year
when Edmonton isn't typically a hotbed of tourism.
"What's important is there is a big international market and we're not a
destination for a lot of it, but we are part of a vacation experience."
The northern lights shine brightly over Fort
McMurray, where they're proving to be a draw to Japanese vacationers who
can't see them at home. Photograph by : Bruce Edwards, the Journal, F
Yukihira Miyagishima, vice-president of marketing and sales for All Nippon
Airways, said Canada is a growing destination for the Japanese charter
All Nippon began a Rocky Mountain junket last year, flying Japanese
vacationers to Calgary and then touring to Banff. Last fall, it began an
"autumn leaves" trip to Montreal.
"We wanted to do something else, especially during winter season. At the
same time, the aurora borealis is very popular among the Japanese people and
we've been trying to promote it as a new destination," Miyagishima said.
Alaska and Yellowknife have always been popular with Japanese vacationers in
their northern lights quest. But now Fort McMurray, long considered an
industrial outpost, could turn into a new tourism destination, Miyagishima
"Fort McMurray was not so popular with Japanese people until today ... . We
wanted someplace in Alberta."
For centuries, Nordic folklore has considered the northern lights to be
spiritual and possessing mystical powers. They're created by high-speed
protons and electrons emitted by the sun. They become trapped in a radiation
belt in space and are eventually channelled towards the polar regions by
Earth's magnetic field.
Miyagishima said he saw them from Fort McMurray last year and they took his
"I was so impressed, I was so fascinated. It was just great."
All Nippon has another tour arriving in Edmonton on Wednesday, which will
bring in two more planes full
of tourists and take the first group home.
The company will look at expanding the Northern Alberta charter next year if
demand grows as expected.
© The Edmonton Journal 2006