Photo par Mike Nelson/EPA
Almost two weeks ago, Rob Calabrese created a website that put forth a half-joking, half-serious invitation that has struck a chord with Americans coming to grips with Donald Trump's status as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination."Hi Americans!" the site began. "Donald Trump may become the President of your country! If that happens, and you decide to get the hell out of there, might I suggest moving to Cape Breton Island!"
By Saturday afternoon, Calabrese, a Canadian radio host, had received scores of messages from Americans willing to take him up on the offer, including one from a US Marine who served in Iraq. The man said he wants to keep his wife and two children safe, and he offered a range of skills that could be of use to Cape Breton, a beautiful and rugged part of Atlantic Canada that has been grappling for years with an outward migration problem."That's a serious inquiry," Calabrese said, paraphrasing the note to preserve the man's privacy. "There's almost a sense of urgency to it."Related: The Salacious Ammo Even Donald Trump Won't Use in a Fight Against Hillary ClintonThe site's tongue-in-cheek pitch to address a serious problem of population decline in the province of Nova Scotia has generated media attention around the world, but it's what has come after that has left observers gobsmacked.The website has attracted some 800,000 visitors, who have made thousands of inquiries, many of them about immigration or employment, and led to hundreds of tourists looking to book vacations. Calabrese has averaged five press interviews a day, including one that had him waking up on Saturday at 3am to chat with an outlet in South Africa.At first, Calabrese, his wife, and brother were responding personally to inquiries, but they just couldn't keep up. A local tourism office stepped in to help, enlisting additional staff to deal with the deluge. They added a "Frequently Asked Questions" section to the website, which has helped stem the tide.
"It was a half joke for sure," Calabrese says of his initial motivations, "and I still don't really expect someone to move to a new country based on who becomes president."But the interest is undeniable and genuine, says the father of two, who was born and raised in Cape Breton. "And there are as many reasons as there are inquiries."Some, like a university professor, have considered moving to Canada for a long time and see in Trump the embodiment of longstanding fears about where the US is heading. Others are drawn to Cape Breton's idyllic scenery or the laid-back lifestyle. His initial pitch to Americans noted "health care is free, you know your neighbours and they look out for you, and nobody has a hand gun!" The welcome page has changed, to one that says Cape Breton welcomes anyone, be they Democrat, Republican or a Trump supporter.Related: Pope Francis Says Donald Trump 'Is Not Christian' — Trump Calls Remark 'Disgraceful'"It's a phenomenal, fantastic, positive story from a tourism front because Cape Breton is very much, in my opinion, a gem of a tourism destination," said Mary Tulle, executive director of Destination Cape Breton, the office that's helping Calabrese. She pegs the value of the exposure his website has generated in the millions of dollars.She said 380,000 people have visited her office's website, and about 75 percent of that traffic came from the US over the last 10 days. A total of 1,200 people have purchased vacations to Cape Breton, she said, and 400,000 people have viewed their videos.
Most of the inquiries are about immigration, employment, and housing. At least one person wanted to know what life was like on the island for LGBT people. It's true that every few years, liberal-minded Americans vow to move to Canada depending on the outcome of their presidential election. But this feels different, said Calabrese.Watch the VICE News documentary America's Election 2016: Trump Carolina:"I've been following along this election like nothing else, and just the debates, the decorum in the debates is almost, it's never been like this before. And there's no question people are starting to get worried about it because nobody thought he'd win a single primary and now he's destroying the field," he said. "No one thought he could win the presidency, but he's proved everyone wrong before."And while his Sydney, Nova Scotia radio station has heard from the odd Trump supporter who is angry about his initiative, Calabrese says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.Related: Chris Christie Once Mocked Donald Trump for 'You're Fired' Fame — Now He's Endorsing HimHe was at an auction for a community homeless shelter Friday night, the first time he's been able to go out since the launch, and he heard from many people who were glad he was showcasing the island."I'm just trying to keep things as positive as possible, get as much attention to Cape Breton as I can, while it is something that people are interested in," said Calabrese. "You just got to make hay while the sun shines."Tamara Khandaker contributed reporting.Follow Natalie Alcoba on Twitter: @nataliealcoba