T ourists stroll the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. They purchase local fare, pop into boutiques and avidly people-watch as Montreal natives indulge in the rituals of city life. When their vacation comes to an end, they return home to wow their friends with stories of the bon-vivants they met and the joie de vivre that the city exudes. But there is a problem here: so much of the “authenticity” of the old port, from the cobblestones to the horse-drawn carriages driving on them, is tailored specifically for the tourist experience. Many tourists never even venture outside of the historic quarter to the regions where most Montrealers actually live. According to Tourisme Montréal, of the 18,379,535 people who visited the city in 2008, over half visited Montreal for one day only and over a third spent time in Old Montreal.
Benjamin Forest, a professor in McGill’s Urban Systems Geography program explained this paradox. “The development of the tourism industry typically destroys the very thing they are marketed on,” what Forest refers to as an “authentic historic cultural experience.”
The tourist is left chasing a ghost. “You want to experience authentic culture but tourism is never part of that culture.” Although approximately six million people visit Old Montreal each year, only 4,000 actually live in the area. Forest explained that the absence of residents is not necessarily problematic, however, as it “means that there isn’t that tension” between locals and tourists. Forest pointed to Griffintown as a neighbourhood where tensions between residents and outsiders has arisen.
One corporation in particular holds enormous sway over the Old Port tourist experience. The Antonopoulos Group is a massive conglomerate whose mission is to provide an enjoyable and up-scale Old Montreal experience for those who stay at one of their many ventures. The company owns and manages over 13 properties in Old Montreal, including Vieux-Port Steakhouse, Place d’Armes Hôtel & Suites, Rainspa, Suite 701 Lounge, and Hôtel Nelligan. Their monopoly of the district ensures that tourists can eat, sleep, and party all within the same franchise. The variety of businesses under the Antonopoulos umbrella offers the illusion of choice to those seeking a diverse range of experiences.
Yvon Creton, who has owned and managed the independent l’Aventure restaurant since 1989, commented on the phenomenon. “It’s hard to fight with giants,” he admitted. As an independent business owner he feels excluded from decision-making in the marketing of the neighbourhood, while large corporations hold undue sway with Tourisme Montréal. Creton opposed the incursion of major chains and big local companies as he feels that they don’t add character to the city. “They slowly kill others,” Creton said, referring to the take-over of independent businesses.
When asked if he thinks Old Montreal is for Montrealers or for tourists, Creton explained that he’s been asking himself that same question for 30 years. Although locals do frequent his restaurant, they are generally limited to government workers who come in hordes on weekdays to inhabit the numerous government offices in the eastern part of Old Montreal. He explained that residents of Old Montreal choose to dine elsewhere as they “don’t like mixing with tourists.”
Old Montreal is marketed as a tourist mecca by Tourisme Montréal at the expense of other districts. There could be a benefit in this dynamic, however – the culture of neighbourhoods outside Old Montreal is somewhat protected from the onslaught of the tourism industry. Montrealers can still hope, though, that Old Montreal becomes less of a corporate money-making machine, allowing it to provide a more authentic historical and cultural experience for residents and tourists alike.