A magnetic force is already beginning to emanate from The Lord of the Rings, attracting increased numbers of American tourists for the first time since SARS devastated the $4-billion Toronto tourism industry in 2003.
Almost a quarter of all advance ticket sales for the stage adaptation of the Tolkien trilogy, whose world premiere takes place March 23 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, have been purchased by Americans, Mirvish Productions disclosed this week. And already that number is having a spillover effect on local businesses that are benefiting from an influx of visitors eager to see the show.
A number of restaurants and hotels are reporting an enlarged American tourist presence in the city since The Lord of the Rings went into previews two weeks ago. Reservations by foreigners are up, observes Kostas Kokkinakis, manager of Penelope Restaurant located across the street from the theatre on King Street West. And that is also true for Joe Badali's Ristorante Italiano on nearby Front Street, where vice-president Mike O'Connor says 15 per cent of reservations booked through October are from south of the border.
"The impact is Real with a capital R," declares Al Carbone, owner of Kit Kat and Kit Kat II/Club Lucky.
Mr. Carbone says he has seen business at his two restaurants near the 2,000-seat theatre increase by 40 per cent over the past week.
"We've been waiting for something good to happen to us for almost four years, since Sept. 11 and SARS started making the Americans stay away," Mr. Carbone says. "It's making us full again. People are already coming in more, locals and tourists from all over."
This is all music to the ears of Tourism Toronto CEO and president Bruce MacMillan, who is anticipating a sizable return on the $3-million the city invested in promoting The Lord of the Rings as a tourist attraction: "Some 23 per cent of advance ticket sales are from the U.S., and that's a very important number at a time when we've heard about challenges faced by Canada in attracting American visitors."
A report released earlier in the month by the Greater Toronto Hotel Association detailed the decline of American tourists coming to Ontario. Numbers have plummeted by 33 per cent since 2000, and the falling off has directly contributed to a slump in the local tourism industry.
Fred Luk, who owns five restaurants in the area, including Fred's Not Here and Filet of Sole, says he has seen a major decline.
"It hasn't been the same," he says. Mr. Luk estimates that his sales are down more than 20 per cent, and blames a series of factors that include changing demographics, media reports about violence in the nearby club district, and exorbitant parking rates.
When Mr. Luk started his first restaurant in 1984, he says flat-rate parking was typically available for $5, even on a busy evening. Now, he says, it can run as high as $35 at commercial lots, which charge based on demand. "For a lot of people, that's been a killer," he says. "They just say, 'Forget it.' "
Mr. Luk says the theatre's long dry spell -- it hasn't had a big hit since The Lion King closed in January, 2004 -- was like a coup de grâce for the beleaguered district: "This is an event-driven area. Between shows, business can change 100 per cent."
That The Lord of the Rings appears to be bucking the downward trend is perhaps no surprise considering the aggressive marketing campaign Tourism Toronto, in conjunction with Mirvish Productions, has undertaken to ensure that the city regain its international status as a cultural destination.
Mr. MacMillan said the $3-million Tourism Toronto contributed to foreign promotion went toward supporting road shows headed by The Lord of the Rings producer Kevin Wallace to a number of U.S. cities that in the past have served as lucrative markets for Toronto's long-running theatrical productions, Buffalo, Cleveland, Rochester, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Detroit among them. More promotional tours are planned for March to Boston, Chicago and New York City.
But for some Americans, like Sharon Metz of Buffalo, Toronto has never lost its allure.
"Toronto is our passion," she says from her car as she is about to cross the border into Canada.
Director of regional sales for Entercom Buffalo, a leading American broadcaster with a wide portfolio of radio stations, Ms. Metz is on her way to Toronto to oversee a series of radio programs for American listeners called Warm Up to Winter Toronto. Guests will include Mr. Wallace and Mr. MacMillan, as well as representatives from other local cultural institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum. The objective is to sell Toronto, and in Ms. Metz's opinion the pitch won't be hard.
"Having a world-class production like Lord of the Rings in our neighbouring country will drive consumers across the border. There is not a day that goes by that I don't have one of my many broadcasters asking me, 'Hey Sharon, when are we going up to Toronto to see Lord of the Rings?' And that includes our sister stations in California and Boston."
Mr. Wallace even went overseas to drum up interest in The Lord of the Rings, a gesture that Mirvish Productions says is paying off with advance ticket sales coming in from as far afield as Germany and Britain, where there is a large Tolkien fan base.
The production has also attracted the Gathering of the Fellowship, an international convention of Tolkien-ites, which comes to Toronto's Sheraton Centre in July.
Mr. MacMillan sees this as yet another sign that Toronto as a tourist destination is on the recovery.
"We have positioned ourselves as a creative city with Lord of the Rings," he says, "and, as you can see, it's working."