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So long, farewell, Auf wiedersehen, adieu

As of now, if you email me, you'll receive an automatic out-of-office reply. The subject is "Sorry, I'm away!" and it reads:

Okay, I'm not really sorry — I'm tripping through Europe and North Africa for three months, and won't be in the office again until early 2013.

You may wish to redirect your email to:

  • opinion@brandonsun.com
  • communitynews@brandonsun.com
  • website@brandonsun.com

As I mentioned in a previous column, I've been lucky enough to work through most of my vacations for the past few years, and I've accumulated about 14 weeks of banked time. I'm taking it all at once.

I'm quite grateful that the Brandon Sun has allowed me to do this, rather than making me take a week here and a week there. Coupled with my girlfriend's workplace, which has a generous leave-of-absence policy, it's allowing us to take a pretty swell trip this fall.

We fly to Geneva this week, and we're planning to loop around the Mediterranean for the next three months.

I'll be writing the occasional travel piece for the Weekend supplement that is included in the Saturday paper, and we'll be blogging the whole trip at eurocanucks.ca.

But, in preparing for the trip, I've already learned a couple of lessons that might be applicable to Brandon.

1. What should we do with our hotel tax money?

We now charge visitors to our city $3 a night for the privilege of staying here. It's supposed to be funnelled to tourism iniatives, but that's been pretty fuzzy so far.

So why not take a page from Geneva?

While trying to figure out how I would get from airport to accommodation, I discovered a neat tip about Geneva. They have a machine in the airport, much like the machines in Winnipeg that you use to pay for your airport parking.

Except these machines don't accept money. They dispense public transit passes. For free.

They're only good for 80 minutes, but that's no big deal. Every hotel, hostel and campground in the city also hands out free public transit passes — one for every night you stay there.

Of course, free public transit is also included with Swiss Rail passes (which happen to be on 2-for-1 deals for tourists). Also included with the railway passes? Free museum entry, across the country.

So imagine that every visitor to Brandon, just as they're about to gripe about the $3 extra on their hotel bill, was handed a packet including a free bus pass, and free entry to all the city's museums?

I don't imagine very many city visitors use the bus system at the moment, so it would be extra use for them, and it would do a lot to promote things like the Daly House, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum and the Brandon General Museum.

Maybe the city could set aside, say, a third of the total money, and divvy it up between the museums and the transit system based on how many visits they track in a year?

2. Microtourism

My girlfriend and I, in trying to both save some money and experience more of the local culture, have been experimenting with a site called Couchsurfing.

On couchsurfing.org, you can register yourself as someone who's travelling, or as someone who's willing to host travellers.

Many people do, quite literally, offer up their couches. Others have futons, still others spare rooms.

So far, we've got our first week in Europe all mapped out thanks to the generosity of hosts who have volunteered to pick us up at the airport, show us around, and let us sleep in their homes.

To prepare for this, though, we created a profile on the site and offered space of our own.

Not too many people have come to Brandon, but we've hosted a couple of people who were happy enough to stay here. These are people who, without a host in Brandon, might have stopped instead in Winnipeg, or Virden, or Kenora — they're passing through Manitoba, and just looking for a place to lay their head.

But, when they come, they're really happy to get a slice of "real" Manitoba life. We go out for dinner, swap stories, give them a quick tour.

We had a couple of architects from France stay two nights with us — they loved our little downtown and thought it had a lot of potential, if we would only fill in the gaps.

Here's what I've learned from this:

  • There are a significant amount of tourists who are interested in low-cost, "authentic" experiences with locals. You know how you dream of a rural village in Tuscany where you're the only tourist? That's how some people feel about the wide-open Canadian prairies.
  • Brandon's biggest tourist assets are underappreciated by us locals. You know what our visitors wanted to take pictures of? The water tower. It's huge, it's different, it's in a pastoral location, and it has the Brandon name on it.
  • "Tourism" is something that can be done at the grassroots. Every time you host Aunt Sally from Toronto, you're contributing to tourism. With the Internet, we don't need family connections — we can all be microhotels.
  • Don't feel like hosting people for free? Try renting your space on Airbnb.com, which is very much like couchsurfing, but you can charge for your space.

I can't wait to see what other lessons I could learn from our trip. Don't worry — I'll share.

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