What were the most popular destinations for tourists to Vancouver in the early 1900s vs today? Many of the same destination spots like the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Stanley Park and English Bay remain today. What are your favourite parts of the city, to visit and take out of towners? Did you ride on the open top observation cars that ran along Hastings Street and around the city until the 1950s?


Since the early years of the city, visitors have been drawn to Vancouver for the spectacular views of its natural setting. With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1887, Vancouver became a tourist destination. In 1902, business leaders got together to form the Vancouver Tourist Association, which published maps and brochures; two years later, the Great Northern Railway made a direct rail connection between the city and the USA. Sightseeing tours highlighted the growing city, showing off Stanley Park’s forest, Capilano Canyon, the West End and Shaughnessy’s mansions.

Tourism still plays an important role in the city’s economy and over 8 million visitors come annually to experience Vancouver’s natural beauty and livable lifestyle.


Tourism has been a big part of Vancouver’s story since early into its history. Long known as a ‘distinctive destination’, many of the historic places created in the early 1900s endure today as reasons to visit the city. Early tourists came to Vancouver for two reasons: to revel in the healing powers of the natural landscape and to explore the unbound potential of a burgeoning city. The city’s tourism industry ramped up with the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1885, and the founding of Vancouver in 1886, which changed the port city from a Pacific link to California and Great Britain to an “inward looking continental community” ( Dawson, 24).

A gateway to nature

Our fascination with nature, still a major draw to the area, began early. At the turn of the century, immersing oneself in the restorative powers of quiet forests and majestic mountains was seen as the best way to relax and retreat from debilitating city life. Rest was perceived to play a key role in maintaining an orderly and productive society, making periods of relaxation important ingredients for production. Workers were told to rest one day out of seven and one month out of twelve in order to return with renewed vigor and vitality. Nature also offered the sublime experience. Many early travellers were adventure seekers and were intrigued by destinations like the Capilano Suspension Bridge, rough mountain trails, and even climbing glaciers. The pride and bragging rights in being able to conquer these grand experiences were highly sought.

The appeal of the great outdoors was soon leveraged by tourism boosters who sought outside investment to spur the local economy. Vancouver was sold as a place to get away from it all while still being in close proximity to commerce. “Early travellers to BC… combined their desire to temporarily evade the debilitating effects of modern life with a keen interest in locating and embracing industrial and agricultural opportunities” writes Michael Dawson (p 23).

Vancouver’s earliest tourism promoters 

Established in 1902, the Vancouver Tourist Association was first led by a group of real estate brokers, insurance salesmen and legal businessmen, and two representatives of the CPR. The railway had a particular interest in seeing local tourism succeed as it was a means to help them climb out of the debt. The CPR not only built the method to travel, they also erected several glamorous hotels across the country, including the first Hotel Vancouver, and restaurants along the route, ensuring tourists dollars came back to them. The goal of the Vancouver Tourist Association was that wealthy investors would enjoy their experience so much, they would decide to stay and boost the local economy. Initiatives such as the “City Beautiful” campaign, which aimed to beautify the city with clean and well appointed parks intended to increase Vancouver’s appeal and aid in its growth.

The Vancouver Tourist Association, which evolved into Tourism Vancouver, seems to have achieved their goals as Vancouver is now the third largest city in Canada and one of the most popular destinations with almost 9 million visitors in 2014 alone. The parks and infrastructure established in the early part of the 20th century set the tone for how the city would develop. Many of those early attractions, such as Stanley Park, are still our most popular destinations.


  • Chuck Davis. The Greater Vancouver Book. The Linkman Press, 1997.
  • Michael Dawson. Selling British Columbia: Tourism and Consumer Culture, 1890 – 1970. UBC Press Vancouver and Toronto, 2004.
  • Michael Kluckner. Vancouver The Way It Was. Whitecap Books Ltd, 1984.

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