There’s a new group in town.
The concerns and goals of Residents for Sustainable Tourism are not new, but the organization of residents to form a united voice is.
Bruce Gitelman, spokesperson for the group, says members are not against businesses or tourism. They enjoy all the amenities the town has to offer, that wouldn’t exist without tourists. Their goal is to prevent overtourism and create sustainable tourism in its place, which supports the economy while adding to, rather than diminishing, the quality of life of residents.
They have used the recent street closure of Queen Street as a symbol of what they stand against, that’s only one issue, Gitelman says, admitting it has been an effective tool for drawing attention to their goal of sustainable tourism. Street closure, he says has had a negative impact on nearby residents.
“It is tragic and sad what COVID-19 has done to the merchants of Queen Street. We can only pray that they get access to federal and provincial programs designed to help them,” says Gitelman.
“The experiment of closing Queen Street has been harmful to them. The majority of merchants we have heard from say business is down when the street is closed. The purpose of the closure, according to the chamber was to improve social distancing, and that has not happened.”
Residents for Sustainable Tourism members, says Gitelman, support traditional Queen Street closures for the Peach Celebration and Santa Claus Parade, which are enjoyed by both visitors and residents.
But ongoing street closures are an issue that has been polarizing to residents and businesses, with decisions of Town council aimed at trying to do the best it can by both. At Monday’s meeting, interim CAO Sheldon Randall said the recent closing of Queen Street was a success in that it allowed for physical distancing, but not for window shopping. In the surveys that were received from the two-weekend trial period, he says, “there were more positive than negative for the businesses, more negative than positive for the residents.”
This weekend, the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and the Town have worked out a different plan, to close off some of the parking spots on Queen Street to allow more room for pedestrians, while keeping the street open to traffic.
Sustainable tourism, says Gitelman, “is what sustains a a healthy vibrant town, not day-tripping gawkers who drive dangerously through narrow streets, some without sidewalks. Without sustainable tourism we would not have great shops, restaurants, theatre and wineries.”
While his group warns of the dangers of overtourism, he says it’s understood this is a difficult year for businesses, but as they plan for a recovery stage, it’s a good time to look at what they want to build for the future, and that’s not an economy based on day-trippers.
The first step, he suggests, is to allow parking on the main street while providing welcoming parking areas on the fringes of the Old Town, and offering incentives to those who are staying longer in town to park there.
The former hospital property or Fort George are possibilities, he says, allowing for access to the Shaw Festival (he’s a board member), and to the downtown core, with a shuttle to take visitors to the downtown core, similar to what happens with bus tours.
In his vision for the future, buses stopping for short visits and filling the streets with visitors who don’t stay long enough to support businesses would not be encouraged.
Bus tours “do not add to sustainable tourism. We’re not anti-tourism, we just want smart tourism. There are ways to nudge people to come and there are ways to nudge people not to come. Having parking at the entrance to town is going to nudge people to stay and shop and see a play,” says Gitelman.
“We don’t want to deter shoppers on Queen Street. Merchants, especially the clothing merchants, need to have parking in front of their stores. But traffic should be redirected from the Old Town and residential streets.”
This is the time, as businesses start planning their recovery, for the Town to start planning for the infrastructure that will encourage sustainable tourism, he says.
“We recognize it will take many years for Niagara-on-the-Lake to return to pre-COVID normal. All we ask is that the safety and quality of life of residents who pay the vast majority of taxes, and elect town councillors, is first and foremost in the minds of elected officials as we rebuild tourism in a sustainable way that benefits both visitors and residents.”
Much of what Gitelman says echoes the message of NOTL Chamber of Commerce Eduardo Lafforgue, who began talking about sustainable tourism when he first took on the job.
He was then focused on attracting tourists who will stay longer, as opposed to the bus tour visitors who stay for less than an hour, as being beneficial not only for businesses and the economy, but for the community.
His other goal from the beginning, he says, has been collaboration.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake is a mature destination. If we don’t do something, after maturity comes decay. We have to create sustainability. And we need to do it together, working together to preserve the essence of what we are, going forward instead of backwards,” he says, adding, it has to be a collaboration with residents as part of the conversation.
Right now, he says, the focus is on the pandemic, “and we need to think differently. We are in survival mode.” That means a time to be flexible, he says.
The survey results of the last two weekends are in the hands of town staff, he says, so he doesn’t know what the numbers will say about the street closure. He hopes they will be made public.
While at the moment the merchants are trying to survive the short-term, Lafforgue says, “I couldn’t agree more that in the medium and long-term, we will be planning for sustainability.”
Visit https://www.residentsforsustainabletourism.com for more information about the group.