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Aug. 6, 2020 | Thursday
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Responsible tourism group wants to protect way of life for residents
A street closed sign on Queen Street. (Jessica Maxwell)

A new resident group has formed in Niagara-on-the-Lake, advocating for sustainable and responsible tourism.

The group, called Voters for Sustainable Tourism emerged June 26, and has set up a website and mailing list for residents who want to speak up against “overtourism” that affects the way of life for residents of NOTL, said founder and spokesperson Bruce Gitelman.

“I felt there was a need to have a voice that represents the residents that elect the elected officials on this issue of overtourism,” Gitelman said.

He emphasizes the group supports the tourism industry, but wants to see it done in a way that doesn’t degrade the quality of life for residents.

“It's important to let all of the merchants in the hospitality industry know that all of us our heart goes out to them,” he said, noting the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry.

“We're concerned for their survival. We know that having a healthy Queen Street and a healthy hotel industry and healthy tourism is vital for the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake to be a good place for all of us to live. But tourism should be contributing to the culture and economy of the town. It should not be harming the way of life of the residents,” Gitelman said.

“Now is the time to put in place a way for tourism to grow in Niagara-on-the-Lake in a positive way and to discourage things which might have a negative impact, because overtourism hurts us all. It hurts all the stakeholders. If Niagara-on-the-Lake becomes a place where nobody wants to visit for multi-night stays or going to theatre or dining because it's so over touristed, nobody wins.”

He said the group, which so far has between 10 and 20 people on its mailing list, is meant to be a voice for residents whose way of life is affected by overtourism.

“It's a fine complex balance,” he said. “And so our organization is dedicated, during the road of recovery from COVID, to helping elected officials understand the type of tourism that would be great to have going forward.”

One example of overtourism affecting residents, he said, is the town’s trial closure of Queen Street.

“We live on a street that comes off Queen Street. My wife was looking at the kitchen window and there was a traffic jam on that small residential street. And people were honking their horns because they were mad at another car. That means that if the child is trying to cross the street to go to their friend's house, they've got to go in between cars and if a (visitor) is trying to social distance and they want to walk on the road, they can’t,” he said.

“This weekend there was gridlock all the way from Queen’s Royal Park along Front Street. There were times when cars were bumper to bumper. And I don't think anybody in Niagara-on-the-Lake who moved here or has grown up here wants to have a traffic jam getting to their home or getting out of their driveway.”

He said there are examples of tourist events that benefit residents and visitors alike.

“Like the Peach Festival, the Cherry Festival. There's wonderful tourist events that we all enjoy, residents and visitors, and we're willing to put up with it for short periods of time. But overtourism is when it reaches a point of scale and frequency that it harms our way of life,” he said.

Another example of overtourism is the number of people visiting Ryerson Park in Chautauqua, which has a small beach, no bathrooms and no water testing. In recent weeks, the beach has been overcrowded by visitors, with little room for residents of the neighbourhood to enjoy their own space.

“It's a shame that excess use is harming the residents, who are the people that vote. I mean, who are the town council members supposed to represent? Who are they making decisions in the interest of?”

He said the group hopes to hold meetings with residents in the coming months and that residents can also leave anonymous comments on the group’s website, votersbeforetourists.com.

The group will be a voice for residents, to make it clear to the people running the town that there needs to be a happy medium between tourism and the happiness of NOTL residents, Gitelman said.

“We should let our elected officials know that our quality of life is important to us. And we should let them know when excess tourism has harmed it.”

The main goal, he said, is to make sure Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great place to live.

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