Near the edge of Canada’s iconic Algonquin Park, a vibrant scene beckons: a riot of red, gold, amber and orange reflected in the shimmering waters of Oxtongue Lake.
The spectacular autumn view has sparked a surge in visitors to the region, from Canada and around the world. Only problem is, a picturesque lakeside road with its popular vantage points, is all privately owned. That particular road has five resorts and multiple residences and many of the owners are fed up with the influx of leaf peepers.
They’ve blanketed the area with do-not-enter signs in English and – to the dismay of some locals, who worry it makes the community seem racist – Chinese.
Scott Hayden, owner of the Blue Spruce Resort, put up six of the signs on his beachfront property, calling it a matter of safety and clarity. English-only signs haven’t worked, he says. So he translated them with the help of a Chinese student.
“It’s just a private-property thing,” says Mr. Hayden, who believes most visitors who stop during peak leaf season are new Canadians of Asian descent. “They’ve never seen the coloured leaves before, and they want to see them. But we can’t have that many new people each year.”
After a surge of day-trippers caused concerns last year, the township this season blocked access to the road, putting up Local Traffic Only signs. But the leaf tourists keep coming, drawn by aggressive marketing campaigns that advertise the area’s fall splendour as a must-see. There are local fall-colour reports (peak leaf at Algonquin Park was Oct. 5), webcams and lists of best spots to go. Visitors can zip line, ride ATVs, take a helicopter ride, go on driving, bus or boat tours.
Tourism has mushroomed in the past five years (though fall visitors are hardly new: Tom Thomson painted the autumn leaves; so did A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven), leaving some residents feeling as if they are paying a price for the region’s economic success.
Algonquin Park issued nearly 8,000 day-use permits over this past Thanksgiving weekend, an increase from last year. Lineups to enter the park were kilometres long. Even on the mid-week day The Globe and Mail visited the area, there were tourists from Japan, Switzerland, Taiwan and China, along with Canadian-born visitors. Some stood on Mr. Hayden’s dock, seemingly unaware of the signs, enchanted by the leaves. “Just beautiful,” says one foreign student, currently on reading break from University of Toronto.
Mr. Hayden says people are knocking on his cottage doors, asking to use washrooms. The ditches become littered with toilet paper and rubbish. People stand on his dock to take pictures, take out his pedal boats without asking, park on his property, and block the fire hydrant. Two guys last week flew drones from his beach to take pictures. (“Very cool! But, I’m saying, you can’t do it on my property!”)
“My customers should have some expectation of privacy when they’re paying to stay here,” he says. “I had customers from last Thanksgiving say they’re not coming back because it’s just too crazy.”
He says the signs aren’t racist. “If we had an issue with a different group, be it Italian or French or German, the signs would be in that [language]. But this is the demographic group that’s here right now.”
“We’ve got God’s gift to colour here, but we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”
Tracie Parrott, who lives nearby and owns a strip of lakefront property on Oxtongue Lake Road, is appalled at the signs.
“I was very disheartened that instead of welcoming … the signage in the area was excluding and deterring,” she says, adding that she believes it is “tourism racism.” “It bothered me that our community was so unimaginative.”
For example, “we could have offered walking tours of the road, with alternative parking. What a great way of promoting our area, instead of shunning anybody.”
Avvy Go, clinic director of Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, sees the signs as an example of racial bias.
“You don’t have to single out a particular group of people. I’m sure the Chinese are not the only ones driving up to Algonquin or Muskoka to look at the leaves,” she says, suggesting a universal symbol would be more appropriate. “They may have legitimate safety concerns, caused by a large number of city people showing up. But you don’t have to single out a particular group.”
On Oxtongue Lake, one resident, who declined to give her name, sits on her veranda, facing the lake – and 10 Keep Out signs in English. She doesn’t like the look of them. But even with the signs, she still had people looking for washrooms, and standing on her beach.
She’s never had anyone be rude. But “I don’t like picking up dirty diapers out of my fire pit.”
She figures not much can be done. “They’re coming to see the leaves, and when they come this way, this is the first place where they see them. It’s just natural that they’re going to stop.”
At the other end of the road, Jenny McGuire put signs and yellow tape across her White Birches Cottage Resort to deter people. Thanksgiving weekend was still rough. She and her son spent it patrolling the property, asking people to leave.
She’s worried about liability, should anyone get hurt, and about losing existing customers. “Last year, it was just as bad. I lost two cottage rentals because of it – they said there’s too many people on the property,” adding that one trespasser attempted to take a canoe – without a life jacket or permission.
She plans to put up similar English-Chinese signs to Mr. Hayden’s next year. “I don’t understand the idea of thinking it’s racist if you’re posting signs, when that’s the majority of the people coming to this area at this time of year.”
Across Highway 60, Algonquin Outfitters, which rents canoes and sells camping gear, had a hectic weekend. Rich Swift, the owner, estimates Thanksgiving traffic volume has climbed by at least 75 per cent in recent years, fuelled in part by social media. He understands why. “It’s an iconic Canadian experience,” he says.
He believes the provincial government could alleviate the pressures, by installing more temporary restrooms and public facilities, along with better information on where to stop and the importance of disposing of rubbish.
As for the signs, if any go up next year, Ms. Parrott hopes they will be in English and in pictures, so they’re not singling out any one group. “We are an international destination. And to me, it’s 2016 – we should be inclusive.”Report Typo/Error