Cannabiz co-founder and chief growth officer Martin Lane speaks to travel futurist and founder of Carolyn Childs about the opportunities in cannabis tourism.

Full transcript:

Martin Lane, Cannabiz: Today I’m talking to travel futurist and founder of Carolyn Childs. Carolyn has spent more than 30 years helping travel and tourism businesses achieve their goals through research. So who better to talk about the opportunities in cannabis tourism than Carolyn? Welcome.

Carolyn Childs, Thanks Martin, it’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me to talk about a real new frontier in tourism. You know, we tend to think there aren’t new experiences, but this is definitely a very exciting frontier area.

Martin: You’ve obviously been exploring new opportunities and future gazing into tourism in Australia and worldwide for some time.To kick us off, could you chat about some examples of cannabis tourism in other markets?

Carolyn: Probably the poster child for this and the one we all think about is Colorado. And what’s interesting for me about Colorado is how they’ve linked cannabis tourism to their broader persona, the natural assets, the beautiful location. Also a lot of good fun puns on the fact that a lot of destinations in Colorado are at pretty high altitude. So there’s lots of opportunities to riff off that kind of idea of being high.

If you’ve been to any of the major Colorado destinations like Vail, firstly, you are quite breathless because you’re typically up in the 3000-meter level, but you also have that lovely smell of cannabis. So they’ve really taken it and used it as a part of their persona to drive tourism. It’s a growing area. It’s still a little bit sensitive. I think it’s a good example of a market that’s created itself almost because there’s not a huge amount of promotion that goes on, but we are seeing numbers growing.

Martin: In terms of who the typical customer would be, for that kind of product, is it your counterculture hippies or is it mainstream?

Carolyn: It’s very funny to think where the counter culture begins and ends these days. If you look at the baby boomers, they were the first counterculture people. So people in their fifties, sixties, seventies, they were the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. So we are seeing them, it’s like a move [back] to their youth. It’s about a way of life, I wouldn’t say it’s true counterculture, I’d say it’s aspirational. It’s those people who really wanted to, you know, tune in and drop out, but who didn’t do so full time. There’s a lot of affluence in this.

There is a younger cohort as well, where it’s very much linked to that skiing, surfing lifestyle. But the interesting and probably the more lucrative part of the market is those people who are looking to continue the experiences of their youth. I won’t say reclaim their youth because of course we know that the baby boomers are all completely in denial about the fact that they are old. In their heads, they’re all still 25. To me that’s one of the more interesting areas of the market.

“Probably the poster child for this and the one we all think about is Colorado.”

Martin: In terms of officialdom, is it something the Colorado Tourist Board are getting behind or is this driven by individual operators?

Carolyn: I’m not even sure you’d say it’s operators. Once legalization happened, the natural demand in the market flowed that way. So it’s almost a market that hasn’t really needed promotion because the number of places that actually offer this facility, or this service, or this experience are really not that many. So demand has exceeded supply. The customers are finding it and it’s developing from there. Politically it’s still a little bit sensitive. You certainly don’t see a great deal of promotion. It’s not something you’d find on the website. It’s hard to avoid the puns with cannabis tourism, but it’s really quite organic in terms of its growth.

Martin: Obviously we’re talking about Colorado, a market where cannabis is fully legal. It may be a few years down the track before we get to that point in Australia, but there’s agritourism here already. Do you want to chat a little bit about what that is, why it’s important and what the product looks like?

Carolyn: It can be as broad as people going to visit wineries down to more specific things like farmstays. What we do know for Australia is it’s growing. Prior to Covid-19, Deloitte was saying there was an increase of two million visitors a year doing farmstay tours, visiting farms, this is aside from broader wine tourism area. So that is a big part of Australia’s positioning around green and natural. We do know food and wine is a big part of the Australian offer. We had Restaurant Australia a few years ago, sitting behind that is the idea that because we’re a multicultural nation we don’t necessarily have one unique cuisine, but the quality of our produce is what’s driving it.

It really has been driven quite strongly. One of the interesting things for me is having a look at where the big areas for agritourism are and the link to cannabis tourism. If legalisation goes ahead, it could be quite interesting because the largest single area for farmstay tours is the north coast of New South Wales. Now that’s partly because the destinations up there have had a very conscious policy of opening up. You’ve got amazing natural areas, but on top of that, we know it’s a counterculture area. So to me, one of the first places I can imagine something like this taking off once legalisation happens is that whole north coast of New South Wales region, because you’ve got two fantastic brand pillars.

You’ve got a developed agritourism industry. And then on top of that, you’ve got that counterculture background. So you’ve got two levers that you could pull. There’s been an evolution in how we think about cannabis, where it’s moved from the recreational drug into greater recognition of its therapeutic properties. It sits within that idea of holistic living.

Also Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia are areas of the largest overall state level agritourism. In Tasmania, the Chinese visitors go absolutely nuts to visit a lavender farm. I can’t even imagine what it would be like going to visit a cannabis farm.

Martin: There’s a couple of things to pick up on there.You mentioned the regional tourist organisations (RTOs) and how they’re actively promoting agritourism because that’s the thing they can hang their hat on I suppose.

“For some primary producers, agritourism is generating more revenue than growing the produce.”

Carolyn: It varies from RTO to RTO, but I do know that as a movement, regional areas have, probably for about three or four years, been looking at agritourism as a major opportunity. And one of the reasons for that is the prolonged drought. Thinking about some of the work that Deloitte did, they estimated for some primary producers, agritourism is generating more revenue than growing the produce. Particularly during these times of uncertainty around things like drought, it’s created that revenue stream for farmers to keep farms open and build a life. We’re definitely seeing that.

Some of the areas I’ve seen that have really built it strongly, we talked about the north coast, we talked about Tassie, certain areas of the food bowl on the New South Wales/Victoria border and South Australia have all been very, very strong on building that. I know areas along the Murray have really looked quite strongly at [agritourism] and looking beyond wine into things like olive oil. We talked about lavender in Tasmania. So yes, it’s definitely out there. And it’s definitely seen as a major opportunity.

Recently I worked alongside someone who was looking at this two hours outside of Sydney to say, what are the opportunities for us in this? Because we know we have the produce, we know we’ve got the international reputation and it sits nicely alongside driving our exports and our produce markets, as well as our inbound tourism. When we finally get some inbound tourists back, of course.

Martin: That’s a really interesting point. The notion that actually you can make more money out of the tourist business than you can out of growing the products. I think a lot of our viewers will be thinking about that quite seriously, because there could be oversupply in the future so it’s an interesting new revenue stream. You touched on wellness a little bit, I guess that’s another part of the mix in terms of cannabis and tourism?

Carolyn: Cannabis as a business exists because of that evolution of thinking about what cannabis is and its therapeutic power. So I can almost imagine a wellness resort on a cannabis farm where you have cannabis baths, like the old European spas where people came to stay because they had specific illnesses. But it could also be more of that general wellness stuff. And wellness is going to be one of the post-Covid trends that really takes off because if anything a pandemic does is it makes us realise the critical importance of who we are and our health and wellness.

So it was already a fast growing trend and the pandemic has really kicked that into overdrive. Like I said, I have this wonderful vision of a resort somewhere above Byron or Coolangatta, with the produce around you, cannabis massages, produce coming off the back of that in terms of soap and oils. I definitely see huge opportunities in that. And I think that will be part of how cannabis repositions itself because we know that legalisation is a path that seems incredibly fraught to get there, and within a year, everyone wonders why. So I think a big part of that will be generating products and services that support cannabis’ recognition as a therapeutic product.

Martin: Obviously this conversation is all with the rider that we’re not quite there yet, but you see what’s happening in other markets… I want to come on to talk about New Zealand in a minute, but before we do that, one other thing that occurred to me was around the job opportunities. You think about backpackers going out to pick grapes and things like that. Do you see [cannabis harvesting jobs] being a new thing [for backpackers]?

Carolyn: I’m trying to imagine the conversations they’d be having with their parents on that, but yes. You would probably know more about how cannabis is harvested than I would, but we’ve seen how that whole backpacker market has been critical. Indeed, there’s already talk about whether we will see severe hardship in the agricultural sector and threats to Australia’s food supply by the absence of backpackers coming in to pick things in the current situation. So yes, I definitely could see that working holiday type solution would be there. As I say, one part of me is imagining the conversation with the parents. And the other one is imagining the bragging rights of saying that was part of your working holiday visa. “Oh yeah, forget the grapes, I’m going to the cannabis field.”

“[Tourism] will be part of how cannabis repositions itself… generating products and services that support its recognition as a therapeutic product.”

Martin: The opportunity of extending your working holiday visa for another 12 months and going out to the cannabis fields – that’d be quite a long queue. Now I mentioned New Zealand before, and I’m always intrigued by the fact that back in [former NZ prime minister] John Key’s day, he was prime minister and tourism minister. I don’t think Jacinda Arden is, but it certainly gives you an idea of how important tourism is to New Zealand. And at the risk of upsetting Tourism Australia, you could argue that Tourism New Zealand has punched above its weight for a number of years, in terms of inbound tourism. Obviously there’s a [cannabis] referendum coming up in September, if that referendum goes yes, could you imagine New Zealand will be anything other than very aggressive in its pursuit of opportunities around cannabis tourism?

Carolyn: I actually think both destinations benefit from that healthy rivalry, we kind of riff off each other a little bit. I don’t think it takes anything away from Tourism Australia as a marketing body to say New Zealand does punch above its weight. It’s that small country need to drive ingenuity. So given that, I would be very, very surprised if some smart person on that side of the Tasman didn’t already have their business plans ready. They’ve been leaders in thinking about who their market is. They’ve been incredibly focused on that, looking at how they can build a more sustainable future. They’ve got the New Zealand Futures task force, which is an interesting distinction for me. We’re on a restart and they’re already moving on and thinking about the future.

So I’m pretty confident that there will be some of that real Kiwi ingenuity out there. I reckon somebody will be listening into this and they’ll be on the phone to you or dropping you an email to say, actually we do have a business plan for this because we see it as an opportunity. As we saw with Colorado, where it’s almost organic, but imagine if you turbocharge it with New Zealand’s reputation for being safe, friendly, clean, green. And then you overlay this natural demand for cannabis, tourism, excessive supply – you start to build that. I could easily see that would take off, yes.

Martin: New Zealand has leveraged its natural assets very well for tourism. You think about Queenstown and Milford Sound and its natural environment. So I guess it wouldn’t be a stretch to think they would be able to do the same thing with cannabis.

Carolyn: Absolutely not. Interestingly there are some tensions emerging under the 100% Pure New Zealand (brand positioning), some of the pressures of being a successful tourism destination have started to threaten it. But my guess is this would be another great way of driving dispersal because that’s one of the things that New Zealand has done.

Like Australia, they are constantly looking at ways to spread the value of tourism and to make sure some places aren’t love to death, which definitely we know is a risk. Queenstown [doing well], but other places not seeing those benefits. It’s very hard to get the balance. You’ve always got either too many tourists or not enough. I think something like cannabis tourism, by the very nature of the fact that there are more places you could grow it, it’s going to drive that natural dispersal of people.

Martin: That’s a really interesting point because that’s part of Tourism Australia’s brief isn’t it? TA brings people to the country and then state tourism bodies fight for those people to come to them. But TA’s other remit is to make sure the whole country benefits from tourism, this would be a really good way of them fulfilling that ambition.

“…how we successfully created a $500 million tourism industry from a product that wasn’t even legal five years ago.”

Carolyn: Well, I’m not sure I’d want to tell them that, I’m trying to imagine the optics of it until legalisation happens. But definitely, as part of an agritourism offer and as a product, that’s likely to have really quite strong and high value appeal, if it’s managed well, and Australia is pretty good at managing that sort of stuff. So definitely I could see it start to generate [visitors] for some areas.

My feeling is the first destinations will be the ones like the north coast, where you’ve already got that natural fit, but given the range of climates that we could grow cannabis in in Australia, you could genuinely imagine it being an opportunity that might sit alongside the primary industry stuff in pump-priming a transition in these farming areas. I absolutely could see it helping with dispersal.

Martin: The cynic in me says that money talks and maybe tourism hasn’t been something governments have thought about in terms of the opportunities for cannabis. But, as you say, it has the potential to be huge. I keep coming back to that thought that, in some cases in agritourism, the the tourism is worth more than growing the product, which is very interesting.

Finally, to end, you’re a futurist, I want you to imagine it’s 2030, Covid-19 is but a distant memory and cannabis has been legalised for a few years now. What does the world look like? Is Mildura the new Mudgee?

Carolyn: Well, Mudgee could be the new Mudgee as well but I think it will take a little bit longer before it becomes [mainstream]. If you look at how long we’ve been promoting wine in Australia, it’s probably about 30, 40 years. It will be faster than that, but I think it will probably still be at the stage of a very exciting early industry.

I imagine what you’ll find we’ll be looking at in 2030 is a lot of people having very excited conversations in corridors about how they can seize this [opportunity]. You’ll have seen this yourself, you’ve got somebody who’s got a really bright new idea in tourism, they tend to get mobbed at conferences. So I can see that definitely being the case. That’s probably also another revenue stream for those people, speaker [slots] talking about how we successfully created a $500 million tourism industry from a product that wasn’t even legal five years ago. So I think that’s what we’d be seeing, it is probably still at the early stages, the height of the buzz.

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