Tourist spotting in Quebec City

By Dave Johnson

November 2006

Dave Johnson observes the mythical “tourist” in its natural habitat, and finds it’s after only one thing: a nap.

If you move to Quebec City, perhaps the first thing you’ll notice is the cultural and economic divide between the upper city, which includes the tourists’ favoured stomping grounds of Old Quebec, and the lower town, where equally old buildings crowd the small roads of the traditionally working class neighbourhoods. Noticeably, the divide running along the escarpment is also linguistic: in the upper city, English is commonly heard in the street, while in Vieux Quebec one hears languages as diverse as one might hear in Trafalgar Square. In the basse ville, however, after two months of living here I have yet to hear my native tongue spoken outside of my apartment or my company on the sidewalk.

I’ve become fascinated with watching the tourists who flock in to dominate the haute ville in seemingly never-ending droves. They come by the bus-load, or cruise through in their SUVs (identifiable by the Ontario plates). And as they do their sight-seeing, it is usually unmistakable what they are feeling: boredom. Many families seem to enjoy themselves—-the children at any rate—-but watching the backpackers and empty-nesters leaves one terribly depressed. As in most cities to which tourists flock, there is plenty to see and do in Quebec. But from the look of it, the seeing and doing doesn’t seem to be very stimulating—-it’s not, after all, a rock festival—-and in addition to being very boring, it would appear they find it exhausting.

Indeed, I remember the exhaustion of tourism well myself. My sister and I spent several days in Rome some years ago, and the whole time we were there, trucking all over that monstrous city, all we wanted to do was sleep. But you don’t go all that way just to sleep. So, instead, we sucked it up and toured the Coliseum, visited the Vatican, and so on, all the while dreaming that perhaps some entrepreneurial spirit who had come before us, anticipating demand, had set up bunk beds in some forgotten corner of St. Peter’s for tourists on the verge of collapse. Sure, she or he would have charged at least 50 Euros for a short nap, but it would have been the best money we spent in that city (apart from the five-euro pub crawl, but that’s another story).

Watching the dazed looks on the tourists’ faces as they hike about the Quebec Citadel, I know for certain they feel the same way as we did in Rome, especially in the blistering heat of summer. Then when they’re touring the Old City’s winding, narrow streets, and they realize they’re already back where they started from, one frequently is overheard asking the other, “Okay, so where do you want to go now?” The honest answer is surely not to another ridiculously overpriced bistro exploiting the culinary reputation of the region, or to another historical sight, but more likely, “to bed!”

Another thing I’ve concluded from my observations of the tourists, in addition to their near-universal boredom and exhaustion, is that they are not a representative cross-section of their societies—-the Russians are not representative Russians, and the Latin Americans are not representative Latin Americans. The Americans (and Torontonians) are almost exclusively white. Indeed, these are members of the wealthy elite, some of the most privileged in society.

How do I know? Well, by observing the way they dress, for one: none of them wear stained shorts (how the heck do you keep khaki shorts stain-free?!), their golf shirts are never faded or torn, and their name-brand sun glasses are rarely scratched. They apparently don’t get their aunts to cut their hair. Some of them stay at the Chateau Frontenac, which charges between $350 and $900 a night. For the majority of the world�s population, even for the majority of Canada’s, such over-the-top extravagances are unthinkable.

And so observing all of this, one has to wonder: is it worth it? We are all more or less aware of the mass suffering at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the desperation which comes from the unimaginable poverty endured by hundreds of millions, even billions around the globe. As this global poverty spreads and deepens, so too does the accumulation of wealth by the privileged minorities of this planet. While some would argue that nothing justifies such disparity, how might others try to justify it, especially after watching the wealthy blow their cash on junkets to foreign cities that bore them to tears? Can we justify in turn the huge expenditure of resources such as airplane fuel, and the pollution it causes, for such an end? Are this country’s natural and historical treasures not worth anything if people are not paying to go see them?

Dave Johnson spots tourists in his spare time.

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