Toronto Tourism growing in importance
In the afterglow of the Pan/Parapan Am Games, Toronto residents have fixated on tourism revenue and city building as important dividends arising from our successful hosting job. And now that the Games’ success has bolstered support for other hosting opportunities, new infrastructure projects and unprecedented levels of tourism are now within sight.
Torontonians recognize the benefits of drawing visitors to the various attractions, businesses and neighbourhoods that define our city and showcase its unique character. Toronto is home to an enviable array of urban and natural enclaves, diverse cultural experiences, food, entertainment and world-class retail.
Tourism Toronto guide is the official guide but shortchanges Scarborough
That’s why visitors and locals turn to the Official Toronto Tourist Guide produced by Tourism Toronto, the official destination marketing organization for the city. For many, this Guide serves as a go-to compendium of nearly 700 attractions located across our proud metropolis.
However, even the most cursory read of the Official Guide raises important concerns, especially for Scarborough residents.
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The food example
In March 2015, American economist Tyler Cowen, author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, offered a personal assessment of Toronto’s diverse attractions, stating:
“Scarborough is the best ethnic food suburb I have seen in my life, ever, and by an order of magnitude.”
Interestingly, he expressed hope that his readers would have the chance to visit – not the familiar downtown core—but the less glamorized district of Scarborough.
Cowen’s praise shed light on the fact that unique attractions are located in all corners of Toronto, not just in the downtown core. But a search of the Official Guide’s nearly 200 culinary venues for some of the restaurants Cowen enjoyed reveals the Mandarin buffet and Tim Horton’s as two of only three spots found in Scarborough.
The sad fact is that only 23 of the attractions listed in the entire Guide are found in Scarborough while one mall (Yorkdale) accounts for 29. If the total number of Scarborough’s entries were proportional to its 22% share of the city’s population, there would be 153.
Despite comprising 30% of Toronto’s geographic area, Scarborough is only represented by 3% of recreational attractions, 3.7% of all accommodations, and less than 1% of retail options.
A flawed approach to governance and funding
Wishing to understand how the ‘Official’ Guide’s content is chosen, we reached out to the federal, provincial and municipal government departments listed as partners and learned that the Guide receives 20% of its funding from the Ontario government.
We also found out that Tourism Toronto takes as its responsibility to showcase Toronto’s best and most unique attractions in the context of a competitive world of cities vying for potential visitors from a variety of places around the world including Germany, Japan and New York State. Tourism Toronto appears to believe that it has to choose to highlight those venues that will maximize the attractiveness of Toronto to those particular audiences and others.
There is nothing to argue with here. But one reason Scarborough receives such light coverage is that its associations and venues are not members of Tourism Toronto or have not paid the $400 fee that would have to be paid to be represented.
The combination of these two explanations is nothing short of scandalous.
On the one hand, Tourism Toronto strategically chooses the venues to include and highlight but if you join up and pay $400, you can get included in the Official Guide. Is this why two of only three of Scarborough’s restaurants in the guide (chosen from many hundreds) are The Mandarin and Tim Horton’s?
Is it Checkbook or strategic tourism? It’s can’t be both.
Is Tourism Toronto’s model a strategic model or a checkbook model? It simply can’t be both unless if distinguishes between ‘bought participation’ and those strategically chosen. The Official Guide emphatically does not make that distinction.
But what’s worse is that a guide that calls itself the Official Tourist guide (with the logos of all three levels of government clearly displayed inside the front cover) will accept payment from a restaurant or an entertainment venue not on the basis of whether the food or entertainment is good but because it paid its dues and fees.
This results in a muddle of strategic choices and checkbook tourism where the latter has nothing at all to do with the quality of the offering.
Governments allow their logos to be used but have no role in choice of attractions
We now know from written responses from two levels of government (City of Toronto and Government of Ontario) that they have absolutely nothing to do with the choices made respecting the attractions included. In Ontario’s case, literally hundreds of thousands of Scarborough’s residents pay Ontario income taxes to support an Official guide that fails to represent Scarborough interests and deprives them of the significant commercial and economic activity that governments proclaim that tourism generates.
By allowing Tourism Toronto to use government logos to promote the guide and its proclamation of officialdom, it might be a surprise to tourists and Torontonians alike that neither the City nor the Provincial government has chosen to have any oversight whatsoever in what is chosen as an attraction or the business model that governs those choices.
What if other Official Guides used the Tourism Toronto model?
For just a moment, let’s think about what it would mean to extend the Tourism Toronto model to other Official Guides.
In the realm of Sports, would we perhaps see an Official hockey guide that omitted coverage of teams that were either playing poorly or generating poor fan attendance? Would we see an official football guide with its official logo that provided a few paragraphs to one team and several pages to another because the franchises had differences in their market share and fan popularity? Or perhaps a major league baseball guide that excluded coverage of the Minnesota Twins because they didn’t pay a required fee to be in the guide?
In the realm of official guides to national monuments, can you imagine an Italian Guide funded in part by taxpayers that excluded the Leaning Tower of Pisa because the town of Pisa didn’t pay a membership fee for its inclusion?
The reason that the above examples are so absurd is that the Tourism Toronto model of officialdom is broken. We are told that the CN Tower and other signature venues are in the Guide because of their unique and iconic attractiveness to potential tourists.
How would the Scarborough Bluffs get in the Official Guide when the City of Toronto is a partner, but does not fund and has no role in tourism choosing attractions?
Did the CN Tower pay its $400? And Scarborough Bluffs and Bluffer’s Park which is excluded from the guide: is it not included because it’s not considered an attraction or because it did not pay its $400? How would Scarborough Bluffs go about paying its entry fee for inclusion?
Remember that the City has already said in writing that it does not pay anything to Tourism Toronto as part of its partnership arrangement. That being said, how would the Scarborough Bluffs get in?
Would a group of ratepayers or a local Business association have to raise the money to include a (City owned and maintained) park in the Guide?
A flawed aspiration to officialdom
The essential problem surrounding the aspiration to officialdom for a model that combines strategic and checkbook tourism (without distinguishing between the two) is that government sponsored officialdom would appear to presuppose at least some sense, however small, of representativeness and governance.
The unsuspecting tourist who sees a restaurant included in a government sponsored official guide just might have the idea that it is included in the pages of the guide for reasons other than the restaurant paid a fee to be there.
But if the intention of the Guide is to lead visitors and leisure-seekers to Toronto’s unique businesses and sites, it is effectively saying of Toronto’s eastern third: “Move along, folks; there’s nothing to see here”.
Not chump change! Tourism is about real money
Besides building and promoting Toronto’s distinctive ‘brand’ on the world stage, tourism also generates real money for local businesses and neighbourhoods. According to the City of Toronto’s website, Toronto received 25 million visitors in 2012 who spent $5.1 billion adding $3.8 billion to Toronto’s GDP and $2.5 billion in labour income.
Assuming that the Official Guide is successful in directing tourist spending and that the City’s figures for 2012 are not just the usual boasting, Scarborough is missing out on almost $1 billion a year that it would have received had it benefitted from its proportional share of “official” promotion.
Real consequences to Scarborough being left out
People living in Scarborough are not children of a lesser God despite the omnipresent whispers that translate to the names you hear smirked in common parlance or relentlessly on the pages of Toronto Life: Scarberia, Scarlem and Scareborough.
To be clear, we know that the largely suburban Scarborough does not have has the same concentration of attractions as the dense downtown core. However, judging by the inclusion of common franchises noted above and a noticeable absence of the Scarborough Bluffs, we can’t help noting an anti-Scarborough bias.
Who decides where the attractions are? Is it the Hotel association?
In fact, we were puzzled to learn that the content in the so-called ‘Official’ Guide has no formal government oversight whatsoever despite conspicuous government partnerships and the Ontario government’s role in funding it. The remaining 67% of funds comes from the Greater Toronto Hotel Association and other partners. For this, one assumes that they may play a significant role in determining what gets promoted. We wonder how accountability for promoting Toronto’s sites and businesses is ensured under such an arrangement and how their model of ‘officialdom’ basically a self-appointment, is determined.
The fact is that the unfair under-representation of Scarborough is probably only a small part of the picture. As tourism flexes its ever increasing economic muscle through international events and a lower Canadian greenback, it is high time for the Official Toronto Tourist Guide and government-funded tourism promotion more generally, to mirror and support the city and the region as a whole.
What can Scarborough do? One option is to ‘lean in’.
So yes, Scarborough ratepayers and businesses can step up to the plate, pay their dues and swing for the fences. Scarborough can buy the representation it needs and so can everyone else. But that does not change the fact that it is a fundamentally flawed model that would swell the pages of the Guide with even more checkbook tourism with no standards respecting quality or attractiveness all with the complicit support of three levels of government along for the ride as ‘blind bankers’ or silent partners.
We need to reassess the narrow and outdated strategy employed by tourism authorities. Maybe our Official Guide should encourage exploration of our great city and pay more attention to the Tyler Cowens of the world who venture beyond officialdom to find Toronto’s real internationally renowned treasures. Now that just might be the beginnings of a real plan for 2024.
John Stapleton and Jamille Clarke-Darshanand – October 8, 2015