Visitor numbers are soaring and litter is piling up in southern Ontario’s favourite outdoor playground. What can be done? Bruce Peninsula resident, SUP guide and ML Contributing Editor Scott Parent reports.

Tourism has long been regarded as a mutually beneficial industry—a win-win for both the destination town and the visitors. The latter enjoy their experiences while the local businesses glean the economic benefits. But in recent years, questions have emerged about “over-tourism” and its negative impacts across the globe.

 

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Peninsula youth take water samples for microplastics research with students from Ocean Bridge, an educational conservation program.

 

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Residents of the Bruce Peninsula (as well as some visitors) are pondering these same questions. Visitor numbers have risen steadily on the Peninsula for years, with crowded parks turning away day-trippers by the hundreds and sometimes thousands on summer days.

Too many visitors can change the character and experience of a destination. For visitors, destinations may begin to lose their original authenticity. Meanwhile, the responsibility of cleaning littered and damaged beaches, shoreline and parks falls to locals. When tourism operators and agencies can’t manage the crowds, many of those visitors end up sprawling through the neighbourhood and beyond—often leaving a trail of trash behind them.

 

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Plastic waste drifts over the Alice G shipwreck, Little Tub Harbour, Tobermory.

 

The term “over-tourism” suggests the problem is just one of quantity—too many people want to travel to certain places, including the Bruce. I suggest the problem isn’t that we travel, but how we travel.

It’s been said tourism is travel without a purpose. It’s a lot of walking around, looking at stuff. Humans no longer roam to hunt and gather—or to discover new worlds. Mostly we shop, dine and search for Instagrammable images.

 

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Beach litter in Black Creek Provincial Park, which has seen a dramatic rise in summer day-trippers.

 

Of course this doesn’t describe everyone. As a paddling guide, I’ve met thousands of visitors to the Georgian Bay area over the years and have heard a wide range of reasons why people come here. Many are searching for inspiration and for a place of regeneration to help them through their day-to-day lives. But some show up for that selfie on a SUP at the Grotto, without wanting to develop the skills to make that goal happen. And we’ve commodified our natural wonders without providing the knowledge about what they are and what it is that makes them so extraordinary in the first place.

The problem isn’t over-tourism. It’s more that tourism as we know it hasn’t always been a balanced industry. The problem is unbalanced tourism—which includes the unchecked promotion of a destination without fully examining the consequences.

Until now, tourism agencies have been running full throttle, promoting destination areas without any check-valve in place. Publications hype up the area with top-ten seasonal hit lists. Instagram and travel blogs also fuel the industry.

 

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A rare crowd-free stretch of the Peninsula.

 

Humans no longer roam to hunt and gather—or to discover new worlds. Mostly we shop, dine and search for Instagrammable images.

 

For example, online tourism publications have promoted (without my knowledge) tours my Peninsula-based company Fathom Paddle Guiding was not conducting at the time. And Flowerpot Island was ranked on a “top ten” list of places to visit early last summer—at a time when Fathom Five National Marine Park (which manages the island) hadn’t yet decided whether or not to open it due to the pandemic.

I don’t believe we are loving the Bruce Peninsula to death. The way in which we’re collectively befouling the beaches and wild spaces, leaving more than footprints behind, isn’t what I would call the touch of love. The rampant online promotion of the region isn’t loving it to death—it’s selling it down the river.

 

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Scott Matheson of Camp Celtic leads a beach cleanup with Ocean Bridge students at Black Creek.

 

There are folks who love the Peninsula and contribute to taking care of it. But we can no longer ignore what’s happening. To love the Peninsula is to nurture the wild spaces, not defile them. We need to take better care of this “almost island” and the water that surrounds it.

So what can we do? Tourism operators and promoters need to know when to apply the brakes. When informing visitors about natural areas we depend on, all of us need to emphasize a more meaningful connection—what this means and how to achieve it—over Instagram-centric commodification.

 

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A plastic bag in the nesting area of a smallmouth bass and fry.

 

I think three key considerations should be applied when making future decisions about Bruce Peninsula tourism:

If tourism doesn’t increase the quality of life for the locals, it isn’t working. Our local population is greater than its tourism sector. Tourism operators have to ensure their contribution actually enhances life for everyone.

As travellers, we have to assume we’re guests in someone else’s home. Respecting the local areas and customs is a sure way to be welcomed back time and time again.

We have to protect and care for the environment that attracts people in the first place. 

The water is already polluted and the trails and beaches need our help. If you come paddling with Fathom Paddle Guiding, you can expect we’ll be picking up trash along the way. This isn’t a solution, but just one small act.

We need to reframe our experience of the wild places we love and recognize that we’re nothing without them.

From ML Blue Mountains, spring ’21.

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