Category: Canada, Rideau Canal.

UNESCO designation a boon for the Rideau Canal

Area tourism has benefited as travel writers from around the globe have flocked to the waterway since it became a world heritage site, writes Katie Daubs.

By The Ottawa Citizen

Area tourism has benefited as travel writers from around the globe have flocked to the waterway since it became a world heritage site, writes Katie Daubs.

Ever since the Rideau Canal received its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site last year, it’s the prettiest waterway at the dance.

“With the international travel media, the interest has just been overwhelming. They all want to come over,” said Anne Marie Harbec, the executive director at the Rideau Heritage Route Tourism Association. “It used to be us doing all the work, trying to attract writers here.”

But not since June 2007, when the canal received the nod for being the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America from the early 19th century.

Since then, more than 25 writers from Britain, France, Australia, Germany, Japan and China have crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to see the UNESCO-sanctioned splendour.

“Queenslanders don’t tend to fly north to Canada in search of warmer climates, so cruising along scenic Canadian waterways in weather hot enough for a dip in a lake is an unexpected pleasure,” writes Jim Mathers in Road Ahead, an Australian auto club magazine.

All of the accounts mention the world heritage designation. Many are steeped in the aboriginal history of the lands. Others focus on the nature, or the artisanal delights of Merrickville and Perth. Others describe the voyage.

“The lockmaster could have been from an era long past, but for his modern khaki Parks Canada uniform,” writes Andrew Holman of the Adelaide Advertiser in Australia. “His face is bronzed and wrinkled. His hands tough and calloused, the result of years working the lock system in the same manual way it has been worked since 1832.”

Mr. Holman also calls Ottawa a hip city: “(It) must be one of the most beautiful capitals in the world,” he muses.

But this is just a sign of things to come, said Ms. Harbec. One of the most influential opinion leaders among canal enthusiasts, Ron Toft from England, has booked a trip for early September, she said.

In an e-mail, Mr. Toft said boaters in England like “to take full advantage of seeking out foreign canals and other waterways when holidaying on the Continent, especially in France.”

But he said those type of vacations are usually confined to Europe.

“I would say the Rideau Canal is virtually unknown over here — one of the reasons Canals and Rivers magazine has asked me to profile it,” he wrote.

Many of the writers are subsidized by provincial and regional tourism boards, while others pay their own fares. Sometimes, towns along the canal chip in for accommodations, said Ms. Harbec.

Although the statistics for July are not yet available, Ms. Harbec said international visits have increased from last June.

“International folks have a much stronger sense of what UNESCO means than we do in North America. Once you’re on the list you become one of those ‘must-see destinations’ for folks in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific countries,” she said.

To ensure the canal stays on the “must-see” UNESCO list, Parks Canada is under obligation to keep the canal at its 2007 standard. Irv Mazur-kiewicz, the director of canal operations at Parks Canada, said that involves keeping the buildings, stonework and locks in good condition — maintenance already covered by the Parks Canada capital program.

He said it’s not really a big change. That, in his opinion, is the level of community pride along the canal.

“It’s the sense that we are a world heritage site,” he said. “We’re trying to use that ‘world heritage’ designation as leverage to say, ‘we’ve got something unique here’.”

Case in point: the inaugural Rideau Canal Festival that wraps up today, a celebration to honour the canal in an environmentally friendly way. It has included a heritage flotilla, an art show, live music and a food cook-off.

Participants could also “adopt a metre” of the canal for $20, with proceeds going toward carbon credits for the festival’s zero-footprint goal.

“A world heritage committee decided it was a value to the world, and as soon as we started planning this, we decided that the celebration should not have a negative impact on the environment,” said Michel Gauthier, the festival’s president.

Mr. Gauthier came up with the idea in November 2007, several months after the designation came.

“Without the Rideau Canal, we would not be the capital of this country. It used to be the economic motor of this city. And if you’ve had a chance to cycle, walk or canoe along it, you know the active living side of it,” he said.

For its part, Ottawa Tourism has been using the UNESCO designation “front and centre” in its marketing ventures, said spokeswoman Jantine Van Kregten.

“It’s the crème de la crème of tourism. The most important and most significant social, cultural and educational places to visit. We’re now on that very exclusive list,” she said.

In anticipation of more international visitors, the Bytown Museum, located at the bottom of the locks where the canal meets the Ottawa River, has invested in an audio tour in six languages — English, French, Spanish, German, Mandarin and Japanese.

“We started thinking about the designation before it went through. This is a huge opportunity for this community museum to put itself on the world stage,” said Christina Tessier, the museum’s director.

Ms. Tessier said there have been many group tour operators coming down to the museum to scope out the site for next year. Because tours are generally set up a year in advance, the best is yet to come.

“We’re just on the cusp of starting to appreciate what this means for all the small museums along the way,” she said. “We’re really hopeful.”

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Category: Canada, Rideau Canal
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