It was a tough decision. On the first round, Council said no. Then it said yes. Like a hung jury, it had to be reminded of the task at hand. What matters — zoning. What doesn’t — feelings.
The Official Plan opens “shore lands” to tourist-commercial development. The designation was to encourage development that would cater to tourists. That zoning meant Council had little choice but to approve the application; if appealed to the Land Tribunal it would rule in favour of the developer.
Yes, I’m talking about TRAE, a proposed “eco-resort” of about 30 cabins and a clubhouse overlooking the Adolphus Reach. I live not so far away. I know the sheep we’ve been hearing about. I know the wide-open spaces, the farm fields, the cliffs. I know how beautiful it is. I know how much I would hate it if a resort were to spring up right next door to me.
My favourite editorial this past year was about the history of tourism in the County. We called it, fancifully, “This Pleasured Isle, this Green and Storied Place,” (Aug. 10, 2023). We were trying to give a sense of summers long past. I asked Chris if we could do a Part II — more steamboats, more stories of picknicking in the grass, maybe some parasols.
“There isn’t any more,” he said. “After the steamboats, it’s all about the cars.”
Stories of people touring the County in their new Fords, while interesting, are not quite so picturesque. Especially as the traffic starts to become a burden. The Green and Storied Place gives way to the Summers of Strife.
As the TRAE decision makes clear, the tourism that sustains the County is also a source of pain and conflict. Our visitors. We don’t always like them, but we cannot live without them. The County has what is called a tourist economy. It is currently enjoying a period of relative prosperity, thanks to its wineries and distilleries, historic hotels and charming villages, thick forests, plentiful beaches —and all the people these things attract.
We need our visitors. They sustain precisely what makes this place so special. People don’t flock to run-of-the-mill Ontario towns. They are not looking for boutique hotels in Hearst or Kapuskasing. They are drawn to places that are unique, historic, areas of “outstanding natural beauty,” which is what the English call their treasured landscapes. The County is all of these things.
Yet a tourist economy can be a terrible thing. It can destroy the thing it loves. If the beaches at Sandbanks, the birds on the South Shore, and the butterflies at Monarch Point are a huge draw, they are also particularly vulnerable to people trampling, never mind driving, all over them, running roughshod over delicate ecosystems, as thrust-aside Wellingtonians feel in high summer.
Competing priorities are built into the tourism model: should the natural environment be protected and conserved? Or promoted and marketed? Both these things must be done if tourism is to be sustainable. How do we do two things at once?
It’s worth thinking over because the benefits are enormous. Tourism is the lever that might help us to both protect and cultivate our historic homes and charming villages, winding roads and spreading fields.
The people who come here are generally from the cities. Looking for what they think of as the rural remove.
The poet Andrew Marvell described as a “green shade” the sense of retreat people who lived in cities, even in the 17th century, imagined was to be had in the country. The phrase became shorthand, not for a rural idyll, but for the dream of one.
Such dreams are everywhere still. They are the bread and butter, or the wine and the cheese, if you will, of any self-respecting rural tourist zone. Visitors come here in search of a green shade. A temporary retreat from “real life.”
The idea is, in fact, the creation of the city. The city thinks it will find in the country everything it lacks – peace, simplicity, ease. The TRAE resort will sell those who live in the press of city traffic what those who live on County Road 7 already have: rural plenitude.
There’s just one problem. Selling that dream comes at the expense of those who already have it. There’s the rub. Tourism, like new development, keeps the County prospering, and yet threatens precisely that sense of place that makes it so desirable.
I don’t have all the answers. But I have a couple of thoughts, mostly gleaned from Marvell. His poem, “The Garden,” advances the claims of the country over the illusions of the city. It suggests urbanites waste their lives in envy and ambition. Yet it also suggests a “green shade” is equally illusory — temporary, solitary, somehow unpropitious: it “annihilates all that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade.”
The poem features a hapless person standing under apple trees, the weighty globes dropping about his head. It’s just a matter of time before one hits him. He mashes grapes against his lips. He stumbles over melons. He hugs the trees, saying they are better than people. “No white nor red was ever seen,” he says, “So am’rous as this lovely green.” He craves nature. He is ridiculous, a total outsider, with no idea how to behave.
Tourism as we know it today is a complex global phenomenon invented by the internet. It simply was not possible to rent a house in a rural location willy nilly, as can be done today. Rural locations were all but inaccessible to outsiders, particularly in places like the County, which has very few hotels and where overnight stays were largely about camping. It is the internet that has created this mania for discovery, for experiences, for something, paradoxically, not the internet. Something real.
We now have a professional tourism management organization, Visit the County, to create a sustainable form of tourism. That means paying as careful attention to what is already here as it does to bringing the visitors. It is a balancing act.
Such careful cultivation must be top of mind for everyone who lives here. How to protect what makes us so special, allow it to grow without destroying it. That’s a tall order. Thinking over that shorelands designation might be a place to start.