As Eduardo Lafforgue considers the reopening of businesses and attracting tourists during COVID-19 restrictions, he says Niagara-on-the-Lake is not unique in what it is going through.
This is Canada’s Tourism Week, says the president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, but unlike any other year, the sector has been decimated by the pandemic, and the return is going to take time.
The chamber, along with other Niagara tourism agencies, is urging local, regional, provincial and federal governments to consult and collaborate with the sector in developing recovery support, thoughtful measures for reopening safely, and help with incentivizing tourism as soon as it is safe to do so.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake simply cannot afford to lose its tourism industry,” he says.
Across Canada, tourism destinations are being encouraged to “protect their main street,” and NOTL is no different in that respect, says Lafforgue.
“Queen Street is suffering. Businesses are suffering. Some might not be able to continue without some sort of support.”
Eighty per cent of tenants on the street pay the property tax on their space, along with high rents, and these are small businesses, not international companies, he says. “Yet they are the ones who make Queen Street what it is. We need to help the merchants somehow, otherwise some stores will never revive.”
If stores close because of the pandemic, he adds, “there won’t be a queue of tenants wanting to open a store. And if we lose our tenants, the street will decay.”
He sees the heritage tax rebate, which has been on the table for the last 18 to 20 years, but never approved, as the answer, putting money into the hands of tenants or landlords — whoever pays the property taxes, he says.
“We need to help retailers survive to keep Queen Street alive. This goes with the concept of saving Main Street. Right now we don’t know where we’re heading, but we know it’s not going to be the same, the numbers will not be the same. It’s that simple.”
Other tourism destinations across the country also deal with the difficulty of balancing tourism and the needs of the residents, he says.
“The key issue is that businesses are so important in contributing to the benefits of the whole community.”
In destinations around the world, he says, tourism is pitted against the needs of the residents, but residents, including those in NOTL, “would not have the quality of life and services they have without tourism.”
He lists many of the benefits residents enjoy: the Shaw Festival, Bravo Niagara!, Music Niagara, the wineries and the many restaurants, all adding to the quality of life in town and contributing greatly to the local economy.
“The quality of life we have, and the services we enjoy, wouldn’t exist without them,” he says. “We all like our town pristine, but that wouldn’t happen without tourism.”
What the town has is not a tourism problem but a management problem, he adds. “We all need to work together on the right solutions. We need to work together to find the balance, to build the community together and manage it together.”