Hamilton should start thinking about how to attract tourists. When we do, we could do worse than take a few lessons from Quebec.
By Ben Bull
Published September 09, 2009
"'Ow do you like my citay?"
The bloke was tilting his head and methodically stroking his ponytail. He had flowers in his hair. Yes, flowers. In his hair.
"We like Quebec City very much!" I replied before scurrying up the stairs.
I'm not used to talking to men with flowers in their hair.
Back on our B&B sofa my wife and I uncorked a bottle of corner store bought Beaujolais and reflected on what we'd seen and done that day: a gay pride drag show, lunch on the Rue Ste-ursule, shopping on Ste-Jean, an upper town walking tour, ride in the funiculair, dinner in the old port and a stroll through the Plains of Abraham...
We were knackered.
"Thank God we skipped the museums!" said my wife, glugging down a glass.
It was my second trip to Quebec, and Susie's first, and she loved it. "This is like the best place ever!" she enthused, clinking my glass and waggling her foot under my nose - my wife's non-verbal request for a foot rub.
I wasn't surprised she needed a massage. Quebec is a tiring city. There is so much to do within a small walking radius, you can't help but cram a lot in.
Not like these other tourist traps which require itineraries, shuttle buses, subways and, you know - planning. In Quebec you just get out your little map and off you trot.
Susie and I lived in the Hammer for six years. We think fondly of our time there, but we rarely go back. We're tourists now and, well - what is there to see?
As we were weaving through the thousands of out-of-towners crowding the Quebec hotel lobbies, restaurants and downtown squares, we asked ourselves why Hamilton was not a more popular recreation spot, and whether, with a little tinkering, it could be.
We started by asking the essential tourism question: What makes the town unique?
Hamilton has a lot to set itself apart. Sure, it wasn't the landing place for General Wolfe and his band of Brits and it doesn't have any 17th century barricades - but it does have a lot of cool history.
What was all that about the Stelco strike in '46? And where did they make the steel for the tanks during the war? And what are all these gems in the downtown with ghost signs plastered along the sides? Aren't the old GWR rail yards still around? Any old trains? Hamilton used to be a national railway hub; surely they could make something of that? And what about the port - did anything happen there? Wasn't there a bridge collapse on the Desjardin Canal?
Some of Hamilton's history is alive for us to see - Dundurn Castle is impressive and unique - but what about all the other historic homes? If there's one thing Hamilton has in abundance, its historical architecture.
The Imperial Cotton Center is probably worth a visit; the Botanical Gardens too. But what else can we offer up the curious newcomer?
How about a fun trip up the escarpment to see some of those long-forgotten historic homes, and to check out the infamous Hamilton skyline?
As a tourist I want to see what makes the town unique. I want to do something different. I also want a lot of choice. A tour of a steel mill would be great, as would a downtown walking tour. Another waterfront destination - railway museum? port display? - would be nice.
Of course, being a tourist is not just about things to see and do. You have to make your town an easy place to visit.
If I'm taking a downtown walking tour, for instance - where are all the plaques, and the open houses? What's with all these roads? If you think I'm pulling my kids across that intersection, think again!
How about taking a tip from Quebec and pedestrianizing the main streets during the summer? We could create a public plaza at the same time.
And what's with all the social agencies crowding out the core? Sure, these facilities are important - but really, are halfway houses and hotels ever going to be compatible?
Then there's the transit. Is the HSR geared for tourists? If your town isn't easy to get around, people won't come back. How about some light rail and the odd shuttle bus? Quebec has a free Ecolobus shuttling folks to the major sites. There's nothing like leaving your car at home.
Don't forget the Escarpment. How can we knit together the lake, the core and the mountain? There's lot to see in all three places, but I'm not taking the HSR to do it - and I'm definitely not climbing those stairs!
My wife paid a visit to Hamilton late last year. She took the GO bus with two of her friends and went fabric shopping on Ottawa. Street They stayed at the Sheraton, lunched at Limoncello, loaded up on fabric and went for drinks downtown.
They had mixed reviews.
"The Sheraton was amazing," raved my wife, "but Limoncello was bland and the downtown is still a scary place."
Overall they found Hamilton easy enough to get to ("the GO bus was fine but a train would have been nice") and reasonably priced ("the Sheraton was a bargain").
But there wasn't much they could get to without the help of a car, and the HSR was slow. More importantly - they have no plans to come back.
You can't deny the profit pulling power of the tourism industry. Canada pulled in $74 billion in tourism dollars last year.
How much of that went to Hamilton?
As the Hammer emerges from its jobs-by-the-hundreds mentality and starts to realize that jobs come in ones and twos, perhaps the city can start taking a serious look at tourism as an 'industry'. When we do, we could do worse than take a few lessons from Quebec.
Back on my B&B sofa, I thought about our flower-headed hosts' question: "'Ow do you like my citay?"
It says a lot.
How many Hamiltonians, I wonder, would ask a stranger the same thing? And what will it take for us to try?
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