Friday, February 03, 2006

Toronto the not-so-good

Greater Toronto Hotel Association President Rod Seiling, and Bruce MacMillan, President and CEO of Tourism Toronto, are lamenting the lack of tourism and suggesting that both the provincial and federal governments should fork over cash to revitalize the tourism industry in the city.

Both men seem to believe that the tourism numbers are low due to lack of marketing, suggesting that Americans still think we're all about moose, Mounties and mountains. This shows an utter lack of critical thinking skills, a myopic perspective of recent events and a sterotypical view of Americans as ignorant. Gee, I wonder why they aren't coming?

In the days of old when Toronto was a tourist destination for Americans, there were three important things that drew them here:
  1. Toronto was safe and clean.
  2. The Canadian dollar was cheap, so sight-seeing and shopping didn't break the bank.
  3. Most importantly -- Canadians were seen as a friendly people, polite to a fault.

Times have changed and so has Toronto.

Toronto is not perceived to be safe anymore, and it definitely is not clean. We might not be unsafe compared to large American centres, but if we're no safer then we've lost our more favourable comparison.

And it isn't just the gun violence. The city is rife with panhandlers and the homeless. My daughters and I went to see Hilary Duff a few weeks back and I was shocked that as we left the ACC and walked through the tunnel linking it to Union Station, there were no less than four scruffy men blocking the crowds and asking for money. Back home in Scarborough there are some stores and malls that you can't exit without being asked for cash.

The garbage situation in Toronto is a joke. Most major western cities have garbage pick up at least twice a week. In Toronto, recycling and trash are picked up alternate weeks, with a limit of six items on trash days. Compostables are picked up weekly. Dumping in ravines and parks is fairly common, at least in part because of the item limit on trash days. The 'green bin' which is to hold all the 'stinky' garbage, can be opened by raccoons, so having putting it out the night before is not a good idea and if you happen to miss getting it out on time, you just have to hold on to it for another whole week.

But worst of all is the blue box. Tins and bottles littering boulevards and curbs are common sights. Strong winds blow them out of the boxes, or if they fall out of the box while being dumped into the truck, they are simly left where they land. Apparently it isn't in a garbage man's job description to pick up recycling that spills from your bin on its way into the garbage truck.

World-class cities don't operate this way. Civic pride is important, not just for citizens, but for workers. Our city council is living in another century when it refuses to even talk about incineration as a viable solution to our garbage problem and a potential solution to our energy needs.

The rise in the Canadian dollar is another factor that must be contributing to lower tourism levels. If we aren't safer, and we aren't cleaner, then why should they come if we aren't cheaper?

And the final reason -- incivility.

Torontonians are nice, but from some very public comments of our mayor, some big-mouthed former MPs and our former Prime Minister, you'd never know that. These people, elected to represent us, have verbally abused the US, either because they are ignorant, or to score political points. Among other things, Mayor Miller continues to publically blame the US for our gun problems. Add to that, the series of undiplomatic sentiments expressed by various members of government , both elected and appointed, since Chretien was in power. Time has not diluted the negative affect of the "Americans, I hate those bastards" statement by Carolyn Parrish, not least because Paul Martin engaged in America-bashing during the election. It wasn't just at the Climate Change conference; his television ads suggested that a US friendly Prime Minister would be greeted with hositlity by Canadians and that some evil American cabal was funding his competitor.

If Toronto needs something to help increase tourism, that something isn't multi-million dollar marketing. This city needs to take a good look at itself and the people it chooses as representatives. If Americans aren't coming here to visit, it's because we aren't giving them any reason. Dressing our city up in a slick advertsing campaign isn't going to solve the problems that make our city inhospitable to tourists from south of the border.

There are American cities with abundant arts & culture, great restaurants, sporting venues, green spaces close by, historic attractions, and amusement parks -- why should they bother spending their money in Toronto? They used to do it because it was safe, clean, cheaper and nice. Now that it isn't any of those things, what exactly are we offering?

Seiling is wrong. He thinks Amercians have an old-fashioned idea of what we are all about and that's keeping them away -- but maybe, that image of moose, Mounties and mountains is what the Americans liked about us. You could count on things to be a certain way in Canada -- clean, safe, nice. We, as Canadians used to feel that way about ourselves, but I think most of us don't anymore. Could it be that Americans have noticed the changes in us too, and they don't like what they see?