The size of the crowd spoke volumes about how much people on the Bruce Peninsula are concerned about the future of area tourism:
Well before the meeting, organized by the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group, began this past Wednesday evening the venerable old Rotary Hall was already close to standing-room only attendance. BPEG chair Megan Myles told me it was about twice the number of people she was expecting.
That posed some problems keeping the well-organized agenda on schedule, and members of the group now have their own challenge, with their hands and heads full of sticky-note “issues and challenges” and plenty of ideas to help chart a new course for the future of local tourism.
One could say, and I will, that the present state of tourism on the peninsula represents an abundance of problems, the people who worked so hard for years to promote local tourism might wish they could have had.
I’ve been around long enough, writing articles about tourism and even running tourism-related businesses, when year after year, local tourism advocates, like the late Brad Davis and other members of the Grey-Bruce Tourist Association talked about “potential” and how to realize it.
In those days it was understood the Bruce Peninsula was the main destination, the engine of the area industry, with the Ontario Northland Ferry, The Chi-Cheemaun, the iconic image that appeared on almost every promotional effort.
Well, “potential” has become reality, and for reasons that could hardly be imagined two or three decades ago.
Davis, Reeve of the now-former St. Edmunds Township and chair of the local committee that studied the Bruce Peninsula National Park proposal in the early 1980s, was a strong proponent of that idea. The mainland park, along with its companion Fathom Five National Marine Park, became a reality in 1985.
It took a good while to make its tourism presence felt, at least partly because the building of a permanent visitor centre took so long. But even he might be surprised by what has happened in the past couple of years: an overwhelming demand, resulting in traffic jams, exposing a woeful lack of parking and shortcomings in essential services, like no municipal water system in Tobermory.
One of the most shocking things to hear about is the fact the washrooms at the national parks’ visitor centre had to be closed on a regular basis this past, dry summer because its well couldn’t keep up to the demand.
There were gasps in the crowded hall when the parks’ acting superintendent, John Hasselmayer, revealed a total of 150,000 people were turned away this year from accessing park facilities and features, like the Grotto. That compares with 20,000 in 2014.
Hasselmayer called that number “alarming.” And so it is. There’s no argument about that.
He and other speakers at the meeting spoke of a big increase in visitors coming up on day-trips without much pre-planning, and apparently without realizing the problems they’re likely to encounter when they arrive. “Driving up and hoping for the best is not the best way of doing things.”
Rick Salen, of the long-standing Blue Heron tour boat business, told the crowd the huge increase in tourists arriving in the Tobermory area in recent years is not a response to promotional programs. It reflects the impact of social media and the internet.
“Research and bookings are primarily done on the internet,” he said. “We actually don’t go out of our way to bring people here. They’re finding us themselves.”
Salen also spoke of “new Canadians . . . searching out” their new country.
On the bright side, Hasselmayer said there was a big drop in the number of “negative comments” from disappointed visitors compared with 2015 because of increased national park staffing.
That may not be much consolation to the Tobermory-area residents who were inconvenienced – to put it nicely – by the long traffic jams and spill-over parking. I talked to one woman at the meeting who spoke of local people having trouble getting to work, and then not being able to find parking. She said she knew older residents in Tobermory who wished the only grocery store in the hamlet would open earlier so they could do their shopping.
Obviously, in the short term at least some of the tourism pressure needs to be taken off the national parks, for their environmental sake, and Tobermory, for the sake of the community and good relations with visitors.
But that approach has its own pitfalls.
Marydale Ashcroft, a tireless supporter of tourism in the Lion’s Head area, said that picturesque village is already getting tourist “overflow” from Tobermory, but may not be able to accommodate much more.
She warned about the need to protect the fundamental quality of the community that attracts many people to the area and keeps them coming back, including permanently.
“You moved here for a reason,” the born-and-raised peninsula resident told many people in the crowd who moved to the area over the years, “and that reason was because you were treated kindly.”
Many good ideas emerged from “breakout brainstorming” sessions as the crowd broke up into smaller groups. Among them was improved public transit up and down the peninsula, programs to improve visitor awareness of the extraordinary ecological diversity of the peninsula, and a new “welcome centre” to give visitors a lot more information as they reach the “gateway” to the peninsula, possibly in Wiarton.
There is currently a lack of tourist information facilities in the South Bruce Peninsula area, at Wiarton and even Sauble Beach, but efforts are underway to remedy that serious deficiency, Catrina Dodge, chair of the Bruce Peninsula tourist Association, told the meeting.
The sooner that happens, the better. That’s obvious too.
The idea of a “tourist tax” to help pay for infrastructure improvements, like a welcome centre in the Wiarton area, came out of several brainstorming sessions. But if there was a consensus reached on that point I must have missed it. I thought the meeting was supposed to be the beginning of a longer conversation to reach a consensus.
At any event, in that spirit, I venture to say here a tourist tax is a bad idea, especially now. The last thing thousands of unhappy people turned away from attractions in the Tobermory area because of overcrowding need to be hit with is a tax on the way up or down. For sure then they won’t come back.
Tourism pays for itself when people spend money in the community; it pays for itself when visitors have a good experience and go back home to tell their friends and families all about it; it pays for itself when visitors are encouraged to explore beyond the well-known, but over-crowded “destination” locations,
There are many, many wonderful places on the Bruce Peninsula to discover, more than enough for any number of day trips. New visitors from the ever-Greater Toronto Area or from far away can come down my little Cathedral Drive in Hope Ness any time and I’m only too happy to take a few moments to help them find their way around.
Like Mary Dale Ashcroft said, treat them “kindly” and they will come back, maybe to live here permanently like so many of us did, like I did in the spring of 1979. That too is how tourism pays for itself.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in October, 2016