The empty streets of Old Québec
Old Quebec hasn’t been itself lately. Streets usually teaming with people are nearly empty. Restaurants that would normally be full every noon and every night are struggling to stay open. Hotels that should be at capacity have occupancy rates that are a small fraction of what they were this time last year. COVID-19 has caused a disastrous 2020 for everything that depends on tourist traffic here in Québec City.
These dire straits have revived the debate about the role played by tourism in the economy of the Old City. Is it right that souvenir shops and restaurants have edged out the hardware stores and grocery markets? Is it fair that rents paid by locals are driven up by a proliferation of short-term vacation lodging? And what about what some see as an overabundance of hotel rooms in the Old City? In short, should the financial wellbeing of Old Québec be so strongly tied to tourism?
I do not claim to have answers to these important questions except to say that Old Québec has benefited greatly from tourism. That tourists want to come here – insist on coming here – is inevitable. And it is a good thing as well. The money they bring to town is a welcome stimulus to the Québec economy. But more importantly than that, their interest in our town today helps to preserve it for the generations of tomorrow. Some might find it paradoxical, but the Historic District of Québec exists because of – not in spite of – decisions made over the years to increase tourist traffic. In other words, judicious efforts to encourage tourism can constitute acts of conservation. That certainly has been true in the case of Québec City. Lord Dufferin and André Robitaille, the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the National Battlefields Commission all pushed projects that increased tourism in Quebec City and, in doing so, ended up adding to the sustainability of Old Québec as a cultural artifact.
I am disheartened to see the economic harm that COVID-19 has inflicted on Old Québec. But I am also confident that the Old City will come back better than ever when travellers are once again free to explore their world. I will be glad to see them here, buoyed by the fact that their presence will assure the survival of this historic district that is so dear to my heart. There is nothing in all of North America that compares to it.