I left a well-attended public meeting this week in nearby Lion’s Head confident the future of sustainable tourism on the Bruce Peninsula is in good hands, and that the challenges it is currently facing as a result of booming numbers in the last few years will be dealt with wisely.
My reason for feeling that way is largely because of the continuing strong involvement of the local community in that effort.
It may not happen overnight, but the process has already begun, with a tourism master plan now nearing completion, with the aim of being put into action just in time for the coming tourist season. From then on it will be a continuing process, based on four “key pillars,” according to a preliminary draft of a final report presented to the public meeting at the Rotary Hall in Lion’s Head this past Wednesday.
The first key pillar is “community and industry engagement,” already a strong aspect of the process so far. That goes back 16 months to a similar public meeting where problems related to the sudden surge in the number of visitors drawn to the two national parks in the Tobermory area especially were aired. They included, according to an earlier draft of the study, “insufficient parking; inadequate restroom facilities; lack of accommodations and food/beverage services to meet visitor demand; lack of availability and affordability of accommodations for tourism staff; perceived, potential or actual environmental impacts on natural assets; impacts on septic systems; potential impacts on water table / water quality; competition/displacement of local residents affecting quality of lifestyle; (and) perceptions of ‘over-tourism’ affecting quality of guest experience.”
The packed crowd at that meeting organized by the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group (BPEG) took part in a brainstorming session that generated numerous ideas for dealing with those issues.
That led to the formation of a steering committee representing the broad diversity of the community, including the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, permanent and seasonal residents, and the Municipality of the Northern Bruce Peninsula. Later, a partnership was formed, including the local municipality, Bruce County, Parks Canada, and the BPEG, to commission a study by Twenty 31 Consulting, leading to a Sustainable Tourism Management Plan for the local municipality. The aim was to “ensure the tourism sector contributes positively to the social, cultural, environmental, and economic wellbeing of the community and throughout the region.”
A summary of a preliminary draft of the study’s final report was presented at Wednesday’s public meeting by Meghan Myles, a member of the BPEG, and of the steering committee.
She noted that during the study a Twenty 31 staff member commented the consulting company had never seen such a high degree of community-volunteer participation. Twenty 31 has offices in Vancouver, Toronto, and Abu Dhabi and has undertaken similar work in locations around the world, as well as in Canada.
The other three “key pillars” are “product and experience development, investment and asset development,” and last, but by no means least, “sustainability, and positioning and destination branding.”
The draft recommendations call for the formation of a Tourism Advisory Group to oversee implementation of the final master plan, the hiring by the Northern Bruce Peninsula of a tourism development manager. The securing of all-important funding to pay for that position, and “initiatives” related to the plan, is also clearly a crucial recommendation.
I note at this point the future of tourism on the peninsula is of great importance to a larger area, one that used to be commonly referred to as “Grey-Bruce.” What happens on the peninsula regarding tourism has long had an impact on communities along the way as potentially millions of people travel north.
I can recall a time in the 1980s when the Chi-Cheemaun ferry was considered the major regional destination. Trouble was, it took people off the peninsula. Often its biggest impact on local tourism was the wait times people often endured because the ferry couldn’t keep up to the demand.
One example of that still stands out in my memory. One pleasant summer day I happened to be down at the Lion’s Head harbor, probably on the look-out for a story. I found it, or rather, him – a man standing on the dock near the lighthouse. He was looking out across the Georgian Bay waters at the Gun Point, Niagara Escarpment cliffs. The profile of a lion’s head, carved by nature in the limestone cliffs, is what gives the picturesque village its name. I approached the middle-aged gentleman and asked if he had found it, the lion’s head. Turned out he hadn’t heard that story, so for a few minutes I was an unofficial, local guide.
We introduced ourselves. He said he had found himself with a few hours to spare on his way up to Tobermory to catch a later sailing of the Chi-Cheemaun, and on an impulse he had decided to turn off Highway 6 for a look at Lion’s Head.
“And I’m glad I did. It’s beautiful here,” he said, gesturing toward the cliffs. “It reminds me of home,” he added, explaining he had immigrated to Canada from England years ago, and that his home there had been in the Dover area, famous for its “white cliffs.”
He decided then and there, “I’m going to stay here,” instead of taking the ferry over to Manitoulin Island for his holiday. I pointed him in the direction of some local accommodations, and places to eat.
Times have changed. The Bruce Peninsula National Park and its companion Fathom Five National Marine Park have taken over the major destination role, with similar, but likely greater spin-off benefits for the larger region, so great is the volume of traffic heading up the peninsula during the peak, summer season.
To some extent the problems Tobermory especially is now experiencing will solve themselves, I think, as people begin to feel more comfortable about finding their way around and venture off Highway 6 to explore the peninsula’s many other attractions. But that won’t happen if they don’t come back because they’ve had a bad experience. So, it’s important to do everything possible now to make sure that doesn’t happen.
To some at Wednesday’s meeting, myself included, the Twenty 31 report seemed heavy on conceptual language but light on the practical. Given the start of another busy, peak tourist season in a few months, one of the questions asked at the meeting was, “how will you hit the ground running?”
Meghan Myles explained the final report of the study is to be presented March 2. Then there will a “transition period” extending to June implementing the initial recommendations. Meanwhile, whatever detail is already available from various sources will be collected to begin the process of monitoring “indications” at local tourist attractions that issues need to be addressed.
The next phase at Wednesday’s meeting also helped answer the question: people at tables throughout the hall participated in two “break-out” sessions. The first involved looking at locations in Lion’s Head and Tobermory, and coming up with ideas about how to identify issues and appropriate management strategies. The second asked the groups to say what they liked, or didn’t like about the draft plan.
Continued community engagement will fill in the practical details of a plan that will, and must, continue to be a work in progress.
It’s a good start. As the consultants note, in so many words, “unmanaged tourism” is not an option.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in February, 2018