Cannatourism Catching on as Post-Pandemic Travel Returns

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

If one’s journey is indeed the destination, cannatourism is poised to expand the world atlas. While the tentative return of travel to pre-pandemic levels faces several obstacles – e.g., surges in COVID-19 infections, record-high gasoline prices, and shortages of airline pilots and TSA staffing – travel experts report that an estimated 75 million Americans plan to vacation this year, and that tourism represents about 10% of European GDP. The European Commission (EC) warns of regional economic fallout from the Russian-Ukrainian war, and inescapable global effects from energy prices, but expects the proverbial silver lining to be a peak in the consumer price index (CPI) this year.

Enter cannabis. As Amanda Reiman, VP of Public Policy Research for New Frontier Data, explains, a shift has already happened in the U.S. and Canada. “I think we’re going to see more cannabis-focused tourism opportunities in tourism attractions that already exist in Europe,” she said. “They will embrace cannabis.”

Reiman adds that we will see more of an upmarket than we have thus far in 2022, and be more influenced by existing tourism verticals (i.e., wine, spas, and spirituality niches) than engaged in furtive machinations of the past, when cannabis was associated with illegality.

Europe Is Open for Visit

Indeed, look around Europe and you can find an expanding range of attractions where CBD and cannabis are featured. There are a variety of cannabis and CBD spas already operating in Europe’s hospitality sector, collectively underscoring a long-term shift in the perception of cannabis – indeed, of a new direction in tourism for Europe where cannabis is integrated into high-value wellness tourism.

A new Swiss venture has recently opened claiming to be the country’s first CBD spa, which may be contestable though the Schloss Hotel Zermatt with its advertised “herbal aromas” and “hemp sauna” and with cannabidiol-centric massages and treatments is an example of amenities that did not exist a decade ago.

The European model for cannabis tourism stems from Amsterdam, which after a long period of debate is debating whether to close its coffee shops as a harm-reduction policy. Since 1976, when cannatourism was encouraged in the Dutch city, arguments have raged both pro and con. Certainly, the euphemistically named coffee shops brought the city (and to a lesser extent, other Dutch locales) a lot of revenue, but it has been derided as a high-volume, low-cost business model leaving too many negative social consequences in its wake.

Now that the coffee shops have become timeworn, other methods and techniques to experience European cannabis culture and tourism will arise. That is entirely in tune with the changing nature of cannabis and its consumers, who are becoming more mainstream and accustomed to integrating it to orthodox leisure. As Reiman says, “cannabis is now filtering into all kinds of tourism experiences that aren’t 100% about cannabis”.

Venues Offer Variety

Other models have emerged in Europe, most notably from Spanish cannabis clubs. Typically more sophisticated than Amsterdam’s coffee shops, and requiring a personal membership, they eliminated some of the more troublesome aspects of the Dutch model. Yet they, too, are evolving: “The social clubs in Spain recall the U.S. in the early 2010s,” Reiman explains, “where dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area were collectives, and visitors had to be members.” Featuring onsite consumption, the venues often included activities like open-mic nights and yoga – akin to Spanish social club offerings – but eventually shifted to a more directly commercial model.

Despite such relative teething pains, cannatourism in the U.S. and Canada is confidently taking shape and offering new “canna-cation” examples to Europe. A 2020 travel-industry survey found that 18% of American leisure travelers were interested in cannabis-related experiences, led by a preponderance of Millennials and other travelers with higher disposable incomes. By Forbes’ estimates, of $25 billion in legal cannabis sales last year, an estimated $4.5 billion (18%) was driven by tourists, with an additional multiplier into restaurants, hotels, and other attractions. The Cannabis Travel Association International (CTAI) – where Reiman serves on the board – suggests that as cannabis consumption becomes more normalized it will become part of many established hospitality businesses.

There are, of course, already many U.S. businesses and services devoted to cannatourism, including Bud & Breakfast and HiBnB. But as the specific category matures, cannatourism is becoming part of wider destination marketing. For example, Visit Mendocino in the Emerald Triangle region of California lists cannabis-friendly venues just as it would list dog-friendly ones. “That’s more the trend: that cannabis is integrated into mainstream tourism experiences,” Reiman says. There’s also cannabis tourism based on the winery model; Emerald Farm Tours offers its patrons a cannabis-driven itinerary including B&B tours of a cannabis farm, dispensary, and lunch. Reiman adds that the CTAI is considering a TripAdvisor-style of branded seal for participating members who agree to certain good-member policies including public health, safety, and educational standards.

Another variation exists for spiritual tourism and wellness retreats (e.g., Coral Cove Resort and Spa in Jamaica), along with resorts offering cannabis-focused content through cooking classes, full moon parties, and stargazing.

Other countries are considering cannatourism. Thailand — which has embraced the wellness model after establishing notoriously draconian drug laws — recently announced that it would delist cannabis as a narcotic, allowing cannabis to be folded into the wellness industry (while joining such draws as cheap plastic surgery and dental work), adding to a reported 27.7 million who visited for health and wellness in 2022, contributing $2.5 billion. Uruguay, the first country in the world to legalise adult-use cannabis, is said to be growing its tourism industry, partly as a way to steer tourists into its regulated market.

So, this could happen in Europe too. Greece is seeing boosted tourism numbers as it expands its medical cannabis program, and has been cited as having enormous potential for cannabis tourism. While Malta’s recent legalisation has not been demonstratively impacted by cannabis-related visits, part of the calculus is that it may play a part of the island’s past-pandemic recovery.

Respecting Local Laws

Whatever happens, there is a lesson to be learned from the U.S. “A big barrier to cannabis tourism here are the rules about consumption,” says Reiman. “In the U.S., you can’t mix cannabis consumption with licenced alcohol consumption, which pushes consumers outside.” The ski resorts of New England, she says, would love to permit cannabis consumption, but It’s too cold to ask people to stand outside. “The alcohol-cannabis coexistence is something that we’re going to have to figure out if tourism is to really take off.” To that end, the CTA is working on an agreement with California so that hotels may relinquish part of their licensed alcohol space for the purposes of having cannabis.

If upcoming cannabis-friendly countries like Germany and Switzerland work out more streamlined systems than the US, they could steal a march on this growing market. Either way, the “vice” model of Amsterdam is looking anachronistic – and the upmarket integrated canna-tourism is the way forward. Nevertheless, for now and as noted here before, never travel with cannabis – however easygoing your destination may seem.