Alberta Prairie Railway is celebrating 25 years of drawing tourists from all over the world to Stettler this year.
CEO Don Gillespie, who was involved with the company from the beginning, said there wasn’t much tourism-wise in central Alberta when he started with the train. Now, 25 years later, the train draws upwards of 17,000 people a year to both Stettler and Big Valley, and drew about 280 for its very first excursion of 2014 in mid-May.
“It is a major tourist attraction not just for Stettler, but for the province,” said Aubrey Brown, executive director of the Stettler Regional Board of Trade. “What it does is it draws some of the attention away from traditional tourism areas like Edmonton, Calgary, Banff, Jasper, so now we have something actually in the prairies, and so that was kind of innovative.”
The train goes to Big Valley, where tourists get several hours to explore the town and see the museums, shops, and historical church. Rod Miller with the Big Valley Historical Society said that sometimes visitors don’t get a chance to see everything they want to.
“Which is a good thing in a way, because you get some of them coming back,” said Dan Welter, fundraising chair for the Big Valley Historical Society.
While other places have steam train excursions, not many offer the full experience of food, drinks, onboard entertainment, and a train robbery like Alberta Prairie does.
“The experience of riding the train is very social, and that’s kind of a different type of experience,” Brown said. “They’ve been very successful in assigning seats to people and introducing them to their neighbours, so people’s experience is quite positive.”
Passengers come from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, England, the U.S., Holland, and Germany.
“Stettler gets a major, major spinoff of that business,” Welter said. “Hotels and motels, shopping, gas stations, all that…there’s no place to stay here (in Big Valley), so they go back to Stettler.”
Brown said that tourists come to Stettler for the train, but once they see what Stettler has to offer, they may stay longer, and more importantly, plan a return trip.
“A lot of people think you don’t get a lot of business from it, but I know that…the store gets business from the train, the boardwalk and antique shop get business from the train…and not only that, but it actually puts your town on the map on a large scale,” Welter said.
Gillespie isn’t sure how much the train has brought to the town financially, but estimates that it is in the millions.
He added that that the company gets maybe two bad comments a year out of 16,000 passengers, but the rest of the feedback is excellent.
“People internationally, when they talk about Alberta, they’ll say ‘Oh, we went to this place called Stettler’ and that’s how it is,” Brown said. “So it’s been very positive, I think.”