toronto's tourist trade is on the skids, and things are bound to get even worse in the years to come. That was the message delivered to council's economic development committee recently by city tourism director Duncan Ross. According to Ross, the number of people visiting Toronto has fallen steadily from 16.36 million in 1998 to just 16 million last year. And it's expected the drop will continue into the future unless something is done about a problem that began well before 9/11 and couldn't be fixed by a visit from the Pope and his World Youth Day flock during the heat of this past summer.
"We're in the dumper," says councillor Brian Ashton. He's urging Mayor Mel Lastman to immediately strike an emergency task force that would report to council in January on "how you get this place out of the tourist crapper before it's too late."
Ashton began making noise on the tourism front when he was chair of the economic development committee in late 1999 and travelled to Europe with the mayor in hopes of drumming up a little business for the city. But the trade mission was stunned to learn from tourism officials in northern Europe and Great Britain that Toronto hardly registered as an international travel destination there.
Lastman vowed to change all that.
"We have had a wake-up call," he said at the time, after confessing that the promotion of tourism "is something I've dropped the ball on."
"We've got to take a more hands-on approach," the mayor declared. It wasn't long before herds of fibreglass moose started showing up on street corners all over town and the city's bid for the 2008 Olympics was touted as the answer to our tourism woes.
Alas, those Summer Games were awarded to Beijing, and most of the international attention paid to Toronto's quest focused on some flippant remarks Lastman made about his fear of being cooked for dinner by cannibals.
So much for the hands-on approach.
According to Ashton, too little is being done to promote Canada's largest city internationally, even in the United States.
"You ask a lot of Americans where Toronto is and they haven't got a clue," he says. "That's why people from Pennsylvania come up here wearing parkas in the middle of July."
The councillor maintains that the city gets the short end of the stick from both Queen's Park and Ottawa in their campaigns to attract international travellers.
"When the federal government stops treating Toronto like a foreign destination, we can improve the tourism and convention industry here," Ashton argues. "It's all snowflakes, Mounties and polar bears," he says of the hinterland image the Canadian Tourism Commission tries to sell abroad.
And the province isn't much better. For years now the city has been trying to convince Queen's Park to give it the power to levy a hotel-room tax to raise money for the promotion of tourism here. In Montreal, about $9 million is raised by adding $2 onto the nightly room charge. As a result, hotel occupancy has been on a steady rise there, while the rate here is on a downward trend.
That said, Ashton is adamant that a major reason for the decline in the number of tourists coming here is homegrown complacency and apathy.
"People don't come just for what you are," Ashton says. "They need new attractions." And Toronto simply isn't providing them. "This is a city mired in the past. It's a city that needs to find a future and redefine itself. Toronto the Good? Well, who cares? We need a new image and a new strategy to come up with one."
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the current economic development committee chair, shares many of Ashton's concerns. "In terms of investing money in destination marketing, Toronto's not out there anywhere near as much as it should be," Minnan-Wong says.
But he also thinks tourism is falling off because people who come here notice the city itself is in a state of decline. They see dirty streets and homeless people begging for money all over the place, and they pass on their observations to other potential tourists.
"Those third-party endorsements -- what your friends and neighbours tell you about where to visit -- I think that affects where people take their families," he says.
Minnan-Wong says he's planning to put together a task force, including representatives of the tourism and convention industry, to come up with a new Toronto marketing strategy.
"We need a game plan," he advises. "There's a downward trend, and we've got to stop it and start it moving back in the right direction. Tourism is one of our most important economic clusters. As a job-driver it's huge."
Meanwhile, Brian Ashton has his own way of describing the industry.
"It's taking money out of people's pockets and making them feel good about it."
There's got to be the germ of a good marketing slogan in there somewhere.