Spotlight: Susan Dupej on the state of cannabis tourism in Canada

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"[Regulators] missed the mark on consumption and that's really showing up as an issue for tourism because tourism overlaps so intimately with spaces of social public consumption"

Susan Dupej was at a crossroads as she neared the completion of her Ph.D. in Geography from York University in 2016.

She knew she wanted to work in academia but she was unsure about the focus of her research. With the groundwork of legalization taking shape, Dupej began to think about what legal pot might mean for Canada’s tourism industry. As part of her Ph.D. research, she studied the relationship between cannabis, culture and tourism.

But before becoming a full-time cannabis researcher, she wanted to open up about her connection to the plant.

“When I learned of cannabis tourism, I flipped out because, at the same that this was taking place, I was also having internal reflections about, quote-unquote, coming out of the closet with respect to my own cannabis use,” Dupej tells The GrowthOp. 

A cannabis consumer of several years, Dupej found the plant was helpful in managing her mental health. She kept her consumption a secret, however, even from her inner circle. Following legalization, she got a medical card and explained her cannabis consumption to her mom, who was immediately on board.

“As soon as I was able to reveal that to my mom and be honest and authentic about it, my mom was like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ And I said ‘Okay, here are my plans, I want to research cannabis tourism,'” she says. 

Not everyone’s reaction was as positive.

“When I told people that’s what I wanted to do they looked at me very strangely,” she says.

Dupej is now one of Canada’s leading researchers on cannabis tourism. At the University of Guelph, Dupej is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council post-doctoral researcher in the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics.

She says the final impetus in deciding the scope of her research was learning that Destination Canada, the Crown corporation that’s in charge of tourism marketing for Canada, was not speculating about the impact legalization could have on tourism. 

“When I learned that, I freaking lost it,” she says.

“Cannabis has been part of human society for thousands of years, humans have grown up alongside cannabis and it’s not like cannabis is going to go away. The only way cannabis tourism can drop dead is if all of it disappears from the world tomorrow.”

What is the current state of cannabis tourism in Canada?

Leading up to the pandemic, cannabis tourism was getting ready to go. It was starting to ramp up. Businesses were emerging, entrepreneurs were taking advantage of this opportunity and then the pandemic hit. I think that we would be much further along, to some extent, if the pandemic hadn’t come and put everything at a standstill. 

One thing that tourism is missing, is actually something that applies to a much broader issue when it comes to legalization in Canada at the federal level, and that is the tension around consumption. This has been handed off to the provinces, which is fine, we can work with that, but there just seems to be a lack of consistency around what’s expected around consumption.

The regulations around consumption are one of the things that hopefully, they’ll be able to look into when they’re reviewing the Cannabis Act. And when I say consumption, I mean in all of its forms and all of its varieties, both inhalation and non-inhalation. There are cannabis edibles, and there are infused foods, there are topicals that you can receive at spas. There are all kinds of ways you consume cannabis. And so regulation has completely missed the mark on that. And because they missed the mark on consumption, that’s really showing up as an issue for tourism, because tourism overlaps so intimately with spaces of social public consumption.

That’s one of the areas that I know the industry really wants to push forward. 

How can cannabis tourism play a role in normalizing this plant?

It is a way of introducing tolerance for a substance that was previously prohibited. It’s a doorway, a platform to open society to the idea of acceptance and tolerance and education. 

Normalization, to me, means that there is a destigmatizing happening through education. It does not mean, and a lot of people think this, that everyone in Canadian society is expected to start smoking weed, or even like it for that matter. That is not what normalization means. It means that there is an increased tolerance and understanding. This is what differentiates Canada on the international scale, more broadly, is that we are a tolerant country when compared to other countries around the world, and so that reputation feeds into our image as a tourism destination and layering cannabis into that reputation and image is so important. 

What experiences are people looking to have as cannabis tourists?

Cannabis tourism is as diverse as the number of cannabis consumers that there are. So a lot of times there are two things that people usually think of when they think of cannabis tourism, the first one being party buses, going on party buses and smoking on party buses. That’s the first image. And then the second image actually revolves around and connects to agritourism and farm gate, which are two things that are starting to evolve in Canada. And that is the wine tour, the beer tour, that style applied to cannabis.

With farm gate sales, being able to purchase the product on-site, that’s key, as well as being able to consume the product on the site on which you purchased it and on the site on which it was grown. And this is also a key characteristic of wineries. And then having a facility tour, being able to tour the farm, learn how the process goes, the production end of things, the processing part of things, an opportunity to meet the farmer, this is what people want to do.

Cannabis has been in the dark for so long as a prohibited substance and within the last three years, we have gained so much information. The relationship between people and their cannabis has become more transparent, especially with respect to where it comes from. Before legalization, people were getting their cannabis in a zip-lock bag behind a dumpster and that was it. So being able to go to the facility and see how things are grown is really important. 

How does the provincial patchwork of regulations factor into cannabis tourism?

So the way that I see it, is that change is going to happen from the individual stakeholder up. The individuals who own and operate these cannabis tourism-related businesses are pushing for the right things. They’re pushing for the regulations and one of the key characteristics of socially responsible tourism is that it follows regulations. Well, here’s the catch-22 for cannabis tourism, it doesn’t have any regulations in place to follow. So there needs to be the rules and regulations put in first and what we’re seeing is the industry is coming together, and they are approaching the different levels of government. So there’s going to change at the municipal level, provincial level and federal level but really where it’s going to happen first is at the local level.

It’s the businesses working with municipal authorities, bylaw officers and policy writers about what they want to do and how local rules can be adapted in order to suit the needs of those businesses. So that’s where I’m seeing it play out first. Then you work up to the provincial level and the provinces are the ones who set the regulation for consumption. So this is where the significant challenges reside for any type of business that wants to take advantage of having cannabis consumption of any form, the province is key here.

However, I am of a school of individuals in the industry that believe that the federal government does need to take more responsibility for these opportunities. I know that the federal government has been approached by a group of individuals in the cannabis tourism industry about making these changes but that is still very much something that is in process. 

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