Sunday, 20 Sep 2020

Montreal's tourist heart a ghost town in coronavirus pandemic summer

MONTREAL (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) – Stripped of the crowds of visitors that usually flock to its sights, from the Grand Prix to its renowned festivals, Montreal is trying to reinvent itself during the coronavirus pandemic and salvage what is left of its summer.

The city is spending heavily and sponsoring dozens of artistic shows in an effort to woo visitors. But despite its best efforts, the damage is all too obvious.

“Look at the terraces here, they are all empty, it’s incredible,” said Mr Sam Namour, owner of an Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal, pointing to the deserted cafes on Jacques Cartier Square.

Over the past 40 years, Mr Namour has greeted thousands of visitors to his gallery, including former US president Bill Clinton and former French president Jacques Chirac. But on this hot summer’s day, not a single person has entered his establishment since he opened up three hours earlier.

Around 11 million tourists visit the city in a normal year, 80 per cent of them from outside Quebec province, spending some C$4 billion (S$4.1 billion), said Mr Yves Lalumiere, head of the city’s tourism board.

With half of Canada’s 9,000 coronavirus deaths, Montreal and its surroundings have been hard hit by the pandemic.

The city has had to cancel major cultural events that in the past drew in hundreds of thousands of visitors, including its world-renowned jazz festival.

“A million tourists, tops” are expected this year, said Ms Lalumiere, saying that 90 per cent of the revenue from that sector is at risk.

Visitors have to quarantine for 14 days when they arrive in Canada, so tourists coming from abroad, mostly from France and the United States, are rare this year.

“Old Montreal is dead this year,” said Mr Namour.

Ms Nadia Bilodeau, who runs an Italian restaurant next door to Mr Namour’s gallery, said: “In summer, Jacques Cartier Square is always full, you can’t see the ground because there are so many people there.”

This year, though, it is “like a little ghost town”, she said, looking out at the restaurant’s empty terrace.

The business owners are just about making ends meet with support from the state.

Even visitors from other parts of Quebec province are few and far between.

“The Quebecois are scared of coming to Montreal,” said professor of urban studies and tourism Michel Archambault from Quebec University.

Mr William Foster Friesen was the rare tourist in sight on a recent day, passing through for a few hours on his way from a trip to the Gaspesie region to his home of Toronto.

“I’ve never seen Montreal so empty,” he said.

The same scenes are being played out in the city centre, whose 400,000 workers have been largely absent since mid-March, most of them now working from home.

The city’s beating heart endures, however, though energy has shifted to its outlying residential areas.

Dozens of miles of commercial streets have been made pedestrian-only, with water jets installed for young and old to play in, and courts set up in the street for the outdoor bowling game known as petanque.

The city is shelling out C$400,000 in an effort to woo Montrealers back to the centre, putting on 200 artistic shows in squares over the rest of the summer.

But for some, it is too little, too late. “A drop in the ocean!” said Prof Archambault.

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