There’s a lot to question about the Ontario government’s plans for Ontario Place. The 95-year-long lease of the land on the site’s West Island to Austrian spa company Therme, the secrecy of the total costs of the project, and the missing business case for moving the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place from its home in Don Mills quickly come to mind. Despite all of this, Paul Calandra, House Leader for Doug Ford’s government said earlier this week will press ahead with its plans. “We will not let obstacles get in the way,” he said during a press conference at Queen’s Park.
But as each new piece of damning information becomes public, I’m wondering where the tourism case is for all of this.
After all, Ford and others involved in the project have said many times that this $650 million scheme is about creating a year-round destination, a place where visitors from near and far will want to visit, something that is “world class.”
World class doesn’t mean what it used to. Since the pandemic hit, when tourism shut down and the industry was forced to examine itself and sustainable paths forward, many “world class” destinations around the globe re-prioritized their offerings to align with best practices that address issues of congestion, nature preservation, equity and the climate crisis. Toronto is not immune to any of these concerns.
If the redevelopment of Ontario Place is really about the best way forward for tourism, the current plan should be scrapped for any number of reasons. Here are just a few.
Tourism is an extractive industry – it impacts the environment, the very thing that people want to explore. It’s why destinations at home and abroad are critically examining how their tourism economy is set up and how it can be changed to minimize environmental harm.
Earlier this year, for example, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism and the Town of Banff launched a 10-year vision that will see the organizations work with community stakeholders to ensure the tourist experience aligns with nature and climate goals, priorities of Indigenous communities and community well-being. In New Zealand, the Queenstown Lakes region has similarly committed to achieving carbon zero by 2030 – every car rental, hotel and activity is part of this transformation.
If Ford’s Ontario Place plan is about tourism, then the government should leverage its location on Lake Ontario to preserve the existing natural environment and fresh water. Instead, Therme’s current $350 million proposal will remove more than 800 trees, devastating land that is the habitat of beavers, minks and foxes, as well as 170 bird species.
Cities and regions around the world are also reprioritizing tourism offerings and how they market themselves to visitors to combat congestion. You might remember, right before the pandemic, cries from residents of European cities like Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik whose streets and sidewalks were choked by tourists. Overtourism continues to be a problem, as the Globe and Mail this week reported about Rome.
During the past few years, Parks Canada and provincial park organizations have been on a mission to convince tourists, domestic and international, to explore lesser-known parks in an effort to lighten the traffic to places like Banff National Park, Sandbanks Provincial Park and Lion’s Head Provincial Park.
A smarter tourist strategy by the Ontario government would look at how to create destination hubs around the city. Instead, the current plans concentrate traffic on a mega spa, an expanded concert venue, parks and a relocated Ontario Science Centre in one already heavily trafficked location.
Instead, the Ford government should begin listening to what residents are saying. They do not want cultural institutions ripped out of the inner suburbs. They do not want a private spa blocking access to public land. And they do not want to harm the natural environment.
Lastly, Toronto isn’t a wellness destination. According to a 2022 Destination Canada report about traveller perceptions of Ontario, the top five reasons visitors come to the city are: shopping, the diversity of things to do, festivals and events, arts and culture and culinary offerings.
Those coming to Toronto who want to add a wellness experience already have their choice of spas in hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, water circuits such as Body Blitz and Othership and thermal day spas offering very similar experiences to Therme that are already operating in Whitby, Oro-Medonte and Collingwood.
If this scheme is, indeed, about boosting tourism, clearly there are many obstacles in the way of the Ford government. As we begin to heal from the impact of pandemic restrictions, there’s an incredible opportunity to refocus tourism in the city – starting with this project. There’s that adage about travel – “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” If ever there was a need to reassess the footprint a project is going to leave, this is it.
Maryam Siddiqi is a lifestyle writer and editor who focuses on travel and design. She is the former lifestyle editor at The Globe and Mail. Follow her on Twitter on @msiddiqi.