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2006 12 14
Culture And Tourism In The Modern City: Part 1
imageReading Toronto is interested in the decisions our politicians make concerning the city's cultural realm. So, when we came across this chapter in former city politician, Tony O'Donohue's, book, " Tale of a City," we wanted to share it with our readers. The chapter is written by journalist Cy Jamison and will run in four parts.

-By Cy Jamison

Cities derive a significant portion of their wealth from culture and tourism. In the past, travellers flocked to the old capital of Chang’an in imperial China, to Baghdad in Mesopotamia, to Alexandria in Egypt, to Athens, Rome, Constantinople and Marrakesh. They were entertained by musicians and snake charmers, acrobats and strongmen, actors and storytellers. Often, such great cities hit their apogee in an intersecting orbit with the richest periods in art, architecture, learning and literature – Venice under the Doges, St. Petersburg under Peter the Great, Florence in the age of the Renaissance and the Medicis, London at the dawn of empire and of Shakespeare.

Try to imagine the economies of London, Rome, Paris and New York – four centres where nearly a dozen major airports play host to hundreds of millions of tourists – without the casual visitor in search of the ambience of a city of culture. Europe formally designates a City of Culture each year – but it is not necessarily a national capital; and in fact smaller provincial centres such as Cork and Glasgow have been chosen.

Sometimes the culture of such cities is expressed as much on the streets, or in clubs and restaurants, as it is in art galleries and formal buildings. What really seems to matter to the tourist is the intangible ‘feel’ of a great destination, a Barcelona or Milan.

Take away the visitors and you have the problem Toronto encountered when the SARS epidemic drove ‘overnight stay’ numbers down by 12 per cent in 2003. That translated into half-empty hotels, taxis battling for passengers, restaurants where the staff outnumbered the patrons.

But what did Toronto have to offer to counter the effects of SARS? It has no singular attraction – unless perhaps the CN Tower as a landmark – to make it a ‘must’ destination for tourists. Many much smaller cities can thrive on a single clearly focused attraction – Chartres has its cathedral, Pamplona its bulls, Galway its oyster festival, Nice its Riviera, Rio de Janeiro its carnival, Cleveland its orchestra, New Orleans its Mardi Gras, Havana its faded Spanish architecture, Ravenna its Byzantine mosaics, Liverpool its Beatles. Even an artificial, concocted beachfront city such as Cancun can benefit greatly from its Mayan cultural hinterland.

What Toronto and its tourist czars seem not to have understood is that cities rise or fall on the integrity of their civic culture. Some cities have survived entirely because they retained their cultural integrity. Kyoto in Japan – the capital city before it was moved to Edo (Tokyo) – might have become a flattened and fire-bombed ruin in World War II if a senior diplomat in Washington had not realized that its wood-framed temples and houses represented some of the most perfect examples of Buddhist architecture and culture in the East. Kyoto survived, and today it still presents the Noh theatre in the unchanged and rigorously precise style of the fifteenth century. Gaijin tourists flock to Kyoto’s ryokans and to the Golden Pavilion. And millions of Japanese come too, speeding from Tokyo and Nagoya on the bullet trains.

Cultural tourism is thriving also in medium-sized European cities such as Dublin and Edinburgh – good examples of outposts of empire that have overcome their provincialism and retrieved their status as significant European centres of learning and literature. Dublin, once the second city of the British Empire, is filled with tourists, some of whom come simply because Joyce lived there, and Bono still does. The U2 frontman rewards them by letting them stay in his hotel for $500 per night.

Even smaller cities create cultural watersheds around ‘high’ art. Think of the elegant Provencal cities of Aix-en-Provence, Avignon and Orange, each with flourishing summer festivals of opera and theatre, or Salzburg with its Wagnerian ring cycle, which also got a full staging in Toronto’s new opera house.

Art and architecture
Architecture can have a major impact on cultural tourism. We have seen the transformation of the dull Basque port city of Bilbao into an architectural hub for tourists drawn to Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim museum. Another Spanish city, Barcelona, has turned itself into a major tourist destination by creating a heady mix of culture and architecture, led from the grave by the great Catalan genius, the nineteenth-century visionary Antonio Gaudi, whose Holy Family Cathedral is only now being completed.

If Canadian cities have been less successful than their European and American counterparts in drawing large numbers of tourists, it may be because much of Canada’s early resource-based wealth did not go into creating strong indigenous cultural landmarks. Instead, the money flowed home to the imperial capital, where it helped the development of rich institutions such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate, the Victoria and Albert – and also the royal palaces.

In America, the war of independence helped sever those colonial ties, and the wealth stayed in the burgeoning U.S. cities.

Canada cannot match the sheer plethora of low and high art brought to the American cities by the buying power of the barons of banking and industry. No city north of the Great Lakes comes close to the treasures of the Metropolitan or Modern Art museums in New York, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, or the incomparably endowed Getty museum in Los Angeles. At the other end of the scale, no Canadian city has the drawing power of the cultural artifacts of the Hollywood studios, nor of the Disney characters who turn indifferent cities such as Orlando into some of the most popular tourist traps in the world.

While most tourists from Europe and Asia fly south of the border, Canada has had to rely on smaller cultural attractions, some of them difficult to quantify in terms of drawing power. The Japanese are lured by the schoolgirl charms of Anne of Green Gables, the Americans by the Gallic flare of Montreal and Quebec City, the English by the faint colonial tang of Ottawa and Toronto.

In general, nature is a far greater draw than cities for tourists coming to Canada. There is the de rigueur visit to the somewhat unique charms of Niagara Falls, the East Coast shoreline, the Cabot Trail, the spectacular Gaspe and the Perce Rock, the beauty of the Rockies and the interior of BC, the great sweeps of forest and lakeland in central Canada, the Arctic, cowboy treks in the Prairies, Lake Louise, skiing in winter in Whistler, Banff and Calgary.

That is not to say that Canadian cities do not have their cultural attractions – the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Winnipeg Ballet. But on the whole Canada has been unlucky to have spent so much of its history with its back turned to its major urban centres.

Given this indifference, it is not surprising that cities like Toronto are not well-funded, especially in the arts and culture. A nation with an artificially located capital, stranded on the border between Upper and Lower Canada, is unlikely to create a centrist cultural powerhouse such as London or Paris. In addition, Canada has had a largely rural, provincial genesis. It is a country built on remote trading posts, where for the first two imperial centuries, according to the chronicler Peter Newman, the Hudson’s Bay Company took millions of furs out of the North for shipment to London, without ever inviting a Canadian tailor to do the work.

But some of the colonial trappings are coming off. Montreal and Quebec City are proudly Francophone, no longer mere outposts of Parisian culture. Quebec theatre and literature, the Montreal Symphony, the films and poetry, can stand with anything in the French-speaking world.
[email this story] Posted by Cy Jamison on 12/14 at 02:21 PM

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