In July of last year, as tourist sites around the world stood empty, Sandbanks Provincial Park in Ontario’s Prince Edward County was grappling with a very different problem.
For years the park, known for its beaches and towering sand dunes, had seen consistent visitor growth. But with a federal advisory in place against non-essential travel and the U.S. border closed, many residents of Ontario and Quebec looking to get away from it all were heading to destinations closer to home. At Sandbanks – and throughout PEC, as it’s commonly known – this meant record crowds.
“It wouldn’t be unusual that there would be upwards of an 11-kilometre lineup of cars waiting to get into the park,” said Todd Davis, PEC’s director of community services, programs and initiatives. Trash and illegally parked cars littered the country roadways, and local wineries and restaurants were overrun.
But these weren’t just pandemic problems.
Ever since the first commercial wine grapes were planted in PEC in the 1980s and 90s, the roughly 1,000-square-kilometre island on the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario has been expanding its visitor appeal. First tasting rooms and then cool new boutique lodgings and restaurants proliferated. By 2016, this predominantly agricultural community, home to fewer than 25,000 year-round residents, was picking up steady recognition from prestigious international publications such as Condé Nast Traveler and The New York Times. And the momentum isn’t slowing, with the past year seeing buzzy new hotel openings such as Wander Resort and Mirazule, and more on the way.
But problems such as affordability and strained infrastructure have heated up tensions between visitors and locals. The writing was on the wall even before the pandemic, but the crush of visitors over the past two years meant those issues could no longer be ignored.
“We knew tourism was growing. We were getting more and more people, and it was getting more and more challenging every summer. It wasn’t like all of a sudden we just flipped a switch, but 2020 drew a really fine point on it,” Davis said. “The long term has come to the short term.”
Too many people probably doesn’t sound like a bad problem to have in an economy that counts tourism as its biggest employer, providing some 2,900 jobs – 31 per cent of all employment. But in addition to housing affordability issues, the influx of people has led to noise complaints, staffing shortages and environmental degradation.
After the visitor deluge of 2020, it was becoming clear that the appeal of PEC might also be its downfall. To address the complex issues in play, the County commissioned and unveiled two major proposals: a destination development plan and a tourism management strategy.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, an influx of new hotels could play a big role in the solution – and not just because PEC introduced a 4-per-cent tax this year on all roofed accommodations, including vacation home rentals. For one thing, PEC’s research found that day trippers spend an average of just $74 a visit, whereas overnight guests typically spend more than $400.
But the potential impact of all those extra rooms may extend far beyond the bottom line.
When the Royal opens its doors this month in Picton, PEC’s main town, it will support many of the 27 recommendations set out in Prince Edward County’s destination development plan, which includes building local support for tourism and smarter, more strategic growth. A grand railway hotel that first opened in 1881, the Royal was the centre of Picton life in its prime; but as the local economy dwindled in the 1950s and 60s, it lost its sheen. After a neighbouring church was demolished in 2010, former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara and his family, who’d begun spending time in the area, felt compelled to save the hotel. Over the past five years, they have rebuilt the landmark, which had deteriorated to a mould-infested shell of its previous glory.
Led by Sorbara’s son-in-law Sol Korngold, the project is a stunning reconstruction, full of modern nods to the Royal’s Victorian heritage, But the potential contributions to more sustainable tourism in PEC are not just superficial.
“You know, the timing for the launch of the hotel is interesting,” Korngold said. “The world of hospitality has changed since [we started building]. The service industry has seen a lot of workers not return since the pandemic.”
Korngold, who will become the property’s general manager after it opens, has put much thought into the Royal’s workplace culture. “This is an industry characterized by slim margins, workers who are working long hours for minimum wage. What we’re hoping to do in this new era is to create a place where people feel respected, they feel that they have a role to play and that their impact is great, where they’re empowered to delight their guests. We’re doing our best to offer meaningful jobs. Full-time employment with benefits, a living wage. We want to do it right, not just for our guests.”
This means investing in staff. The Sorbaras bought two homes on a street adjacent to the hotel for staff housing – a dearth of which is one of the major problems flagged in PEC’s plans – and are taking the whole team on an in-depth tour of Prince Edward County to cultivate their ability to act as ambassadors for the region as a whole. “We’re renting a bus and going to go visit the producers, the growers, the winemakers, the cidermakers, the artists,” Korngold said.
To lure guests in the slower, colder months – another strategic recommendation – Korngold installed a fireplace and bathtub in every one of the 33 rooms that could accommodate one. He’s also considering community collaborations, such as a film festival with the Regent, a century-old movie theatre across the street.
“One of the first things I did in the first few months was I made it a point to introduce myself to all my neighbours up and down Main Street. There are so many smart, passionate people who have opened or who have run their businesses here for decades, and I wanted to make sure they knew they had an ally.”
Ensuring the property stays within reach of local residents is also a priority. “One of the earliest things I said to Albert Ponzo, our executive chef, is the last thing we’re doing here is building that special Mother’s Day place that people go to once a year,” Korngold said.
For historian Peter Lockyer of History Lives Here, touristic projects such as the Royal, along with the nearby House of Falconer, a gabled Victorian cottage from the 1850s, restored by Alex Fida of Angeline’s Inn, are nothing short of “miraculous interventions.”
The seventh-generation PEC resident believes these projects are key to improving local buy-in for tourism and ultimately to PEC’s longevity as a tourism destination. “The No. 1 question among visitors here is what is there to do,” Lockyer said. “Traditionally, that’s been go to Sandbanks or go to a winery. I don’t think we’ve pulled the historical card. But history is one of the top four reasons people go anywhere after business, family and friends. History is an economic driver.”
With countless more heritage sites, including 180 archeological sites connected to PEC’s ancestral Anishnaabeg, Wendat and Haudenosaunee nations, Lockyer says the potential is huge. He even has designs on which crumbling old farmhouses and churches might be restored to create more affordable housing, whether for seasonal staff or full-time residents.
For local potter Dawn Middleton, the risks posed by overtourism can’t go unaddressed, but PEC’s boom helped her childhood dream come true. The owner of the Ye11ow Studio grew up in Prince Edward County (she left to attend art school and start a family, but moved back in 2013) and always wanted to have a shop on Picton’s Main Street.
Thanks in part to grants aimed at cultivating creative small businesses, she was able to open her shop a stone’s throw from the Royal and restaurants such as the Marans Dinebar and 555 Brewing Co., all of which have commissioned pieces from her.
“When I was a little kid, I thought having a store on Main Street was the coolest,” she said. “That’s how you know you’ve made it.”
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