Municipal tourism management plan referred back to staff

Early day capacity at Sandbanks Provincial Park has led to visitors exploring other shoreline areas to access water. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)
OLIVIA TIMM

FOR THE GAZETTE

While Prince Edward County tourism remains under a magnifying glass with hopes of mitigating the extensive tourism footprint that negatively impacted both residents and visitors last summer, a potential plan to help manage tourism will undergo further refinement.

A draft Tourism Management Plan presented at Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting by Director Todd Davis was ultimately reffered by council back to municipal staff for further tweaking.

The draft report was completed by Karen Palmer and Rebecca Lamb (Destination Development); Ashley Stewart (Programs) and Julianne Snepsts (Communications). The plan was created in collaboration with senior and frontline staff from Bylaw Enforcement, Prince Edward OPP, the Ministry of Environment, Conversation and Parks along with Quinte Conservation and Destination Development and Tourism expert, Doug Lansky. The comments from more than 1,400 County residents from an online survey were also taken into consideration.

Lineup outside Sandbanks. (Twitter photo)

Residents’ biggest challenges, Davis shared, related to excessive traffic, lack of access to the provincial parks and beaches – both North Beach and Sandbanks Provincial Park – excessive garbage or litter, inappropriate or rude behaviour by visitors and guests to the community, trespassing on private property and lack of parking. 

Davis said a portion of the community members who gave feedback felt some of those issues were related to COVID, but he said, in fact, those problems are not generally COVID-related and have been building for quite some time due to the growth in popularity of the destination.

Locations of the largest concern, he said, are Sandbanks Provincial Park, Picton Main Street, Wellington Main Street, Lake on the Mountain, North Beach and Bloomfield.

Over 45 recommendations such as awareness campaigns, increased fines and fees, greater levels of staffing and the development of technological advancements to help solve some of these issues and challenges are encompassed in the draft tourism plan.

The anticipated cost of the Tourism Management Plan is $590,000 with an anticipated revenue of $293,000. To cover associated costs, the budget will use capital reserves of $49,000 and the Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) of $249,000. Staff will continue to seek out grants and other funding streams tied to COVID-19 relief.

The report and plan focus on five key areas: working with our partners to solve critical traffic and volume issues, reaching our visitors before they leave home, encouraging better visitor behaviour, improving the amenities at boat launches, parks and beaches and supporting County employees with additional training so that they can handle the onslaught of visitation to the community in the spring and summer months.

“One of the greatest areas is day use at the provincial parks and that comes under the banner of working with partners to solve traffic and volume concerns,” Davis said. “It’s no secret that Sandbanks Provincial Park had an unprecedented number of days of overcapacity in 2020 and certainly once Sandbanks reached capacity, North Beach was quick to follow and then overflow traffic started to impact places like Wellington Public Beach and Little Bluff.”

According to the report and Quinte Conservation CAO, Brad McNevin, Quinte Conservation is also taking steps to make physical improvements to Little Bluff Conservation Area, and will be introducing dedicated staffing and other measures to manage visitor flow. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to rebalancing tourism in Prince Edward County – and certainly no guarantee that every challenge can be resolved in a single year,” the draft plan executive summary states.

McNevin said he is pleased to see Prince Edward County taking such a “positive step with the Tourism Management Plan.”

“Quinte Conservation is an important stakeholder when it comes to tourism in Prince Edward County. As a landowner in PEC, we offer residents and visitors to this region a unique, natural experience that allows them to explore some very spectacular environments. Unfortunately, our properties also known as Conservation Areas, were subject to a significant amount of misuse in 2020 last summer and we were really not prepared for the influx of visitors,” McNevin said. 

Some of the largest concerns, he said, related to Illegal parking, overcrowding, illegal camping, litter and inappropriate behaviour, all contributed to an unwelcoming experience for visitors. 

“I believe this experience was shared among many people living, working and visiting the region,” he said.

Aside from property assistance, McNevin said Quinte Conservation staff will also assist with the development of a communications plan with County staff and provincial park staff to better handle capacity issues.

In terms of fee collection, McNevin said they are exploring alternative payment options and the use of a mobile app and that the price of an annual pass at $50 will remain the same.

To encourage better visitor behaviour, a new idea to introduce a “Resident Pledge” will encourage people to embrace their role as “tourism ambassadors” to set the mindset of respect for a rural destination, but was rejected until further tourism management issues are addressed.

The report also states higher bylaw enforcement presence around the provincial parks “should help deter poor visitor behaviour, while increased prominence of digital maps highlighting public washrooms should make it easier for visitors to find amenities when they’re needed.”

Prince Edward OPP are taking steps needed to amplify safety and awareness around beaches, boat launches, swimming pools and in fishing scenarios in light of the tragic drownings that occurred at local provincial parks in the summer. In terms of Point Peter, the municipality does not have the capacity or authority to patrol it and will look to the province for long-term solutions.

Bill Roberts. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Davis said a strategy on what tourism is expected to look like in five to seven years will be coming out later this year in the Tourism Master Plan, along with several other studies to come including the Picton Harbour Plan, Short-Term Accommodation Review and the Wellington Beach Management Plan.

This summer, there could be several no-parking areas implemented at popular entrances to “secret beaches,” for weekends and statutory holidays. Increased fines last summer resulted in $12,400 in revenue in one month of weekend-only enforcement.

Staff recommended the closure of the Belleville Street boat launch for the summer of 2021 and alter the operating hours of the Wellington Beach boat launch from June 1 to September 20, closing them all weekends and holidays until 7 p.m. A block of parking spaces will be reserved for residents at no cost. Visitors will need to book parking space at a cost of $20, but midweek use will be free to everyone. The report states new signage will be installed facing east and west-bound traffic on Main Street to warn drivers when the beach has reached capacity, which is 350 people.

A topic of contention for several councillors was the bulk water haulage at Wellington Beach, which presents a large safety concern. Staff recommend as a temporary measure that water hauling be available June 1 to September 20, closing them all weekends and holidays from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Councillor Bill Roberts pointed out the water haulage in Wellington helps wineries and bed and breakfasts stay afloat. 

“If we close the beach to guests and only leave it open to County residents, that doesn’t alleviate the problems related to having sort of the perfect storm of people using our beach, whether they are residents or guests, and trying to operate a water filling station and a boat launch at the same time,” Davis said. “From a cost deferring perspective, our anticipated revenue at the Wellington beach location for the 2021 summer season is $45,000 that would offset some of those costs. Certainly if the goal of Council is to make that a locals only beach, fence it off and allow locals only to exist and allow them free access to it as part of their rate, that is Council’s decision to make. However, there would be no revenue to support that cost and that cost would be solely borne by the ratepayers of Prince Edward County.”

Councillor Brad Neiman said he cannot support the proposal to close the boat launch and move the water station because it does not benefit the local community.

“In my mind and from the people I’ve talked to, we’re penalizing local people again and we’re penalizing them for what? For tourism. We’re putting the tourists ahead of the local people – the people who are paying the taxes and are keeping Prince Edward County going. I’ve always said you have to move forward if you can’t leave behind the people who got you where you are today. That’s the feeling out there – we’re leaving people behind and forgetting about them,” he said.

Neiman also asked if the plan considers the impact on West Lake and Sheba’s island.

Davis said Sheba’s island will be re-addressed under the parking report coming out in April. 

The Traffic Advisory Committee will also be bringing forward a report around speed limits, which will change all settlement areas to 40 kilometers an hour.

Councillor Kate MacNaughton reiterated several councillor’s concerns surrounding supporting local residents.

Davis said traditionally, a successful tourism destination is when you have more and more visitors coming, but not all visitation is created equal.

“One million visitors over the course of an entire year, as an example, is manageable potentially, but when you shorten that season down to a three-month period, one million visitors becomes an unmanageable thing,” he said.

As an example of how visitor and resident experience would become unsatisfactory, he said, imagine local residents trying to access the beach to find a three-mile line. They would have a negative experience, he said, similarly to a tourist paying money to stay here and joining the same three-mile line.

Councillor Mike Harper asked for better market research for this summer to identify local residents versus tourists, what areas they are travelling from and how long they stay to better understand the tourist economy.

Councillor John Hirsch. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Councillor John Hirsch touched on the issue of media outlets who advertise the “wonder of the County” resulting in an influx of tourists. The resident survey also showed many believe the municipality spends significant marketing dollars trying to “lure summertime visitors to The County.”

The report states since 2017, no resources have been used to market during the summer months – May to September. 

“The focus has been exclusively on building awareness of The County as a shoulder season and winter destination, developing assets and experiences to entice visitation from November to April, and to mitigate the influx of peak season visits. Since 2017, the annual marketing budget has remained at around $30,000. By comparison, Kingston budgets $700,000 annually on tourism marketing. County staff receive an average of 50 requests per year for promotional opportunities with social media “influencers” and content creators, but accept an average of just three well-aligned opportunities. Individual businesses pursue their own media and influencer opportunities, and unsolicited media coverage is outside of The County’s control,” the report states.

Other draft plan recommendations include:

  • Illegal camping bylaw for outside of zoned areas with fines increased to $500 from $80. 
  • Ban on barbecues and cooking devices at municipal parks and beaches, instead encouraging local food options.
  • Provincial parks return to full complement of warden staff with additional seasonal enforcement from a private security service from May to October. 
  • Provincial park and conservation staff to issue $400 tickets for illegal parking.
  • Free parking on main street is recommended from December 1 to March 31 with increased summer parking rates.
  • Modified food truck bylaw to allow operation in towns to alleviate line ups on sidewalks and continue patio program.
  • Postpone the sidewalk bylaw to 2022.
  • Reach visitors before they leave home with a “Plan Your Visit” campaign, paired with enhanced visitor services to manage volume, encourage local spending and prompt day trippers to explore beyond crowded spaces.
  • Additional training for staff including cultural sensitivity, conflict de-escalation and more French language resources along with continued County Tourism Ambassador Training.

Davis said he anticipated push back on the draft plan, which is why the conversation surrounding tourism is happening early – in hopes to have everything ironed out for the spring and summer months.

“Do I think that this is going to make life much better for residents and visitors to Prince Edward County in 2021? It’s going to be challenging. It’s going to require lots of things to happen, but I think it’s a start. We are looking at this under the magnifying glass that was – or that is – the current COVID crisis we have happening in this community now. We can’t blame all of these problems on what has transpired in 2020 and leading into 2021 with the relationship to COVID,” he said. 

Davis said it took the “almost incredible events of 2020” to draw the attention to tourism management.

“We are a community that should have done some thoughtful investment in tourism infrastructure for the last five to 10 years as visitation was growing and now we find ourselves in a situation where we are being over visited and have to make a series of decisions that are going to be painful to all people involved. I look at this as a first step to doing, what we view in our department, as destination stewardship. That we have a responsibility to both our residents and to the visitors in our community to provide better experiences and to care for their health and safety. That’s what motivates our calls. 

The draft report will be revisited by end of March in a phased approach to deal with all items in depth related but not limited to bulk water, Wellington beach, parks, boat launches and water access. The Municipal Accommodations Tax of $248,000 to support these initiatives will also be revisited in light of potential bylaw and fee changes.