We need to talk about overtourism

With an estimated 3.5 million tourists to NOTL, the 17,511 residents are out-numbered by visitors about 200 to 1. The phrase “overtourism” is being used to describe the consequences of having too many visitors to a popular destination.

Michael Fox

With 3.5 million tourists, NOTL’s 17,511 residents are outnumbered 200 to 1. The phrase “overtourism” describes the consequences of having too many visitors to a popular destination.

In October 2017, NOTL Town Council held an open house at the Community Centre to talk about a proposal for a pedestrian mall that would block off traffic on Queen Street in order to provide a new tourist experience. The proposal was advocated by Jim Collard, a B&B operator who served on Town Council from 1985 until he decided not to run again in 2018.  As someone who lives in Old Town, I already was frustrated at the prioritizing of tourists over tax-paying residents. I went to the open house skeptical but open minded. What were the details? What research had been done? Where in North America did this idea work? How much more tourism pain would this inflict on the people who actually live here?

Hundreds of other curious residents turned out, too. There were lots of Town staff paid by tax dollars.  However, there was no proposal. There were no maps or a sense of which streets might be blocked off. Even the de facto governing body in Old Town, the Chamber of Commerce,  was divided about the merits of whatever it was that might be done to create a pedestrian mall.

Candidly, appalled at the waste of time and money, I proceeded to tell a startled Lord Mayor Pat Darte that I thought the so-called open house was an insult to residents. Apparently my voice was loud enough so that people around us stopped talking. Several people told me to calm down because we had no control over how we lived in Old Town — it was the voters in Virgil who determined Council elections.

The next day, to calm down, I spent the day downloading past voting data and creating spreadsheets to look at voting patterns. I soon realized that Old Town voters actually had the numerical advantage, but all parts of town tended to vote the same people in.  I think that misguided tourist initiative for Queen Street might have been the tipping point to spur mobilization by many residents — even before builder Benny Marotta made himself the centre of attention at Randwood. Notably, in the October 2018 election, Old Town voter turnout hit 70%.

NOTL balancing act: 3.5 million tourists and 17,511 residents.
NOTL balancing act: 3.5 million tourists and 17,511 residents. (Credit: Free Clipart)

Overtourism: too many visitors

The 2016 census by Statistics Canada counted 17,511 people in Niagara on the Lake. That’s up 13.7% from 15,400 in 2011 (versus an increase of 4.6% for all Ontario).

Still, with an estimated 3.5 million tourists, the locals are outnumbered by visitors about 200 to 1. The  phrase “overtourism” is being used to describe the consequences of having too many visitors to a popular destination.

Of course, tourists are a good thing. Many parts of Canada such as Niagara have evolved from an agricultural economy 100 years ago to a manufacturing economy 50 years ago to what is now called a visitor economy. The 3.5 million tourists who visit NOTL are part of the 12+ million visitors to the Niagara region every year from across Ontario and Canada as well as from the U.S. and other countries. Many are attracted by the well-run visitor experiences such as those provided by the Niagara Parks Commission.

Across the Niagara region, 36,500 people work in tourism related jobs – that’s 16% of the workforce engaged in hospitality and entertainment.

Nonetheless, the growing crush of tourists and the changing patterns of tourist activity are creating stress among residents. This is not a problem exclusive to NOTL. In the Oct. 27th Economist, an article entitled “Wish you weren’t here” reported on the boom in number of holiday makers, and the concern that too many are visiting the same places. Venice, Italy, is one location with a backlash against tourism. The local government has needed to erect pedestrian gates to restrict tourist access to historic neighbourhoods. 

A Nov. 13 article in The Guardian entitled “‘We’ve been here since 1747’ – Dutch windmill villagers take on tourist horde” reports on the 60 inhabitants of the Dutch village of Kinderdijk who have long been vastly outnumbered by the hordes of tourists drawn to the Unesco world heritage site’s 18th-century windmills. The latest business plan for the village projects an increase in visitor numbers from 600,000 to 850,000 a year.

Certainly, residents benefit from many amenities such as a range of restaurants because of all those tourists. But I resent the idea that I’m supposed to be a colourful walk-on actor in order to entertain the tourists. 

A concern for new Council

In the 2018 Council campaign, several candidates spoke of concerns about tourism, such as bicyclists riding five-abreast on concession roads and blocking farm traffic. Long-time politician Gary Burroughs explained he wanted to reinsert himself in Town Council for a few specific reasons, one of which is the need to find a balance between tourism and residents.  Burroughs acknowledges he had been part of the tourism industry as  owner of the Oban Inn, but things have gone too far when people can’t get out of their driveway on weekends.

“We must have a coordinated plan, with the Town, Region and Province all working together, to not only promote tourism but to manage the significant impact on traffic and parking and other issues that affect us all,” Burroughs said.

I think Burroughs is a pragmatic consensus builder, which is what we need if we are going to have an honest conversation about tourism in order to improve the situation.

Expectations already are very high for the new Council that formally takes office on Dec. 3. However, I suspect that they can do better than the 2014-2018 Council whose 2014 strategic plan listed 10 community-wide priorities, one of which was: “To develop a ‘Made in NOTL’ Economic Development Plan that includes a new Tourism Model.” Frankly, I’m not sure what that meant, but I think the role of government is to consider approaches that might involve new infrastructure such as paved off-road recreation trails rather than trying to dictate how businesses operate.

Suggestions for a process

As always, I have free advice about a possible process, based on what might be done if this were a problem being tackled by a business:

  1. Define the problem, which is I think is the risk of overtourism. (Others might think it is a false perception that too much tourism is impeding the lives of residents.) If you don’t define the problem succinctly and clearly, then you don’t know what you are solving for. This needs to be done by Council.
  2. Someone in local government should assemble and make public meaningful statistics about tourism trends, volumes, benefits, costs, etc. In researching this article, I was surprised by the relatively poor and inconsistent public data available on local tourism.
  3. There could be a call to form a group of residents and tourism stakeholders. These people should agree that their role is not to protect their particular interest group, but rather to listen and think and make suggestions trying to plan the long-term future of the collective community.
  4. Ask our well-travelled residents and tourism leaders to share their observations and ideas based on what they’ve seen in their travels. We shouldn’t need to pay to send anyone to Venice.
  5. Try to envision how things would look 10 years from now if we made some changes.
  6. Make a map of how we might get from where we are to where we want to be. Discuss. Discuss some more. Most important, make a decision.
  7. Clearly identify who is accountable for following the map, and how often they will report on how and where it’s going.