LOUISBOURG — While tourism numbers declined in the rest of the province, they increased in Cape Breton last year, thanks at least in part to celebrations around the 300th anniversary of Louisbourg’s founding.

Local tourism accommodation operators are pleased with the numbers from last year and are hoping the growth can be maintained.

“I would say it was a strong year,” said Connie Bowers, owner of A Paradise Found Bed & Breakfast in Sydney.

“We took a week off for our own purposes, and it was still better than the previous year. I would say last year was better than the last couple of years.”

Bowers said more and better marketing of Cape Breton as a destination seems to be taking effect.

Earlene Busch, innkeeper at the Chanterelle Country Inn on the Cabot Trail along St. Anns Bay, said last year’s tourist season was better than previous ones. However, it would be difficult to attribute the growth to a particular event, Busch said.

“We were up, there’s no doubt about that, but we’ve been steadily going up anyway because we have a unique offering. The Louisbourg300 event was certainly a great boost to the province.”

She said Destination Cape Breton Association, which levies a room tax and uses the money for marketing the island, has been doing a good job, and Busch is encouraged by its new marketing team.

Linda Kennedy, owner of Point of View Suites in Louisbourg, said accommodations increased significantly last year and the buzz from the celebrations at the fortress last year should carry over into this season.

“I certainly hope so, and with the dollars that were spent, we should see a spillover this year,” Kennedy said.

She said the room levy for marketing was controversial, but Kennedy supported it from the beginning because all tourism operators need to raise awareness of their offerings in Cape Breton and elsewhere, and that means spending money to make money.

“It’s a necessary evil. If you don’t spend it, they won’t know you’re here.”

Parks Canada says visitors to the fortress increased significantly following the Louisbourg300 events, with almost 103,000 people coming through the gate. That is a 36.7 per cent hike over the previous year, when the fortress hosted 75,000 visitors. The federal department says the extra 27,600 visitors brought an additional $9.9 million in spending into the local economy.

As well, July and August room nights sold in Cape Breton, a measure of tourism, increased 6.4 per cent over the previous year, while in the rest of the province, room nights sold were down 3.1 per cent.

Parks Canada says it is the first time in a decade that Cape Breton has seen an increase while the rest of the province did not.

Lester Marchand, the department’s visitor experience manager at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, said the increase in tourism was planned, but it wasn’t a one-shot deal. Some of the activities held last year will return, and new ones are in the works.

Marchand said early plans for the Louisbourg300 event came at a time when Parks Canada shifted its thinking across the country to focus more on visitor experiences.

“Do we want to be a monument that’s untouched, or a place that’s used? That’s what Louisbourg300 was all about. Stop talking about buildings and start talking about experiences we can have in these buildings.”

The fortress partnered with community organizations and businesses to create products and activities that generate excitement and income, he said.

For example, the fortress partnered with Authentic Seacoast of Guysborough to produce an organic French roast coffee that is now sold in stores, and activities at the fortress such as learning to split cod or fire a cannon have attracted public interest.

And the LouisRocks concert series last year — that featured an outdoor stage with acts such as Colin Grant, Joel Plaskett and Matt Andersen — was an experiment that worked. The fortress plans to host several more outdoor concerts this year. However, Marchand said, Parks Canada has to be careful to build infrastructure that won’t interfere with the historical nature of the fortress.

Louisbourg will also host rum-tasting events later this year, with a special rum to be produced by Authentic Seacoast, and it will add a gay pride day to its annual Mi’kmaq and Acadian heritage days.

“We need to use this site, which belongs to all of us, to improve people’s lives,” said Marchand. “These kinds of things  have really brought some fresh air into our parks.”

He said Parks Canada staff have discussed the classic Cape Breton conundrum of out-migration and are hopeful that increased activity at the fortress can give people a reason to stay here and create businesses.

Attracting more tourists means making sure local communities can handle the traffic, but Parks Canada has been meeting with businesses to discuss what is needed.

“We still have a lot of work to do to make it sustainable,” said Marchand. “We know that the success of the Fortress of Louisbourg is dependent on the success of the community of Louisbourg. We will engage with anybody who wants to serve the community while maintaining our mandate to preserve this place.”