A TOURIST TALKS BACK
Sure, we’ve a beautiful country, but how do we treat the people who drive here to see it? Terrible, says this writer, who tried it
JAMES H. GRAY
ONE day last August a beaten victim of a New York heat wave, Ryan by name, wanted to get away from it all. He decided on a trip to Montreal. The climate, he had heard, was salubrious and, from all accounts, the natives were friendly. So he started to make arrangements to spend the Labor Day week end in the St. Lawrence metropolis. In the immortal words of Mr. Jacobs, the prize-fighter manager,
“He should ’a stood in bed!”
The New Yorker wrote to a Montreal hotel and got a confirmed reservation. On the Saturday morning before Labor Day he detrained in Montreal, complete with bag and baggage, an appetite for fun and frolic and the necessary supply of folding money. He was thrown at once for a total loss by the reservations clerk at the hotel. He had been booked for Saturday night only.
It did him no good to argue, even with the assistant manager in charge of snafued reservations. He got accommodation for Saturday night and was turned out the next day. For all Montreal cared, he could gather an armload of tourist folders and make them into, a bed in Dominion Square. He got onto a train and headed hack to New York.
Many another American tourist fouled up in the reservations shambles simply got mad and went home, vowing never to return to Canada and to put the hex on the place with all his friends. Mr. Ryan behaved differently. He wrote a more-insorrow-than-anger letter to the Montreal Star. It exploded in the tourist bureau in Ottawa. Last fall, when the various provincial and municipal tourist bureau managers held their convention they viewed the hotel-reservation situation with alarm. They issued statements urging hotel managers to stop gumming the works. Then, presumably, they went on with the business of devising bigger, better and gaudier tourist bait to lure the unwary.
As if the hotel-reservation business were the only bug in the tourist’s ear!
As if, indeed, it were even one of the most important factors in driving tourists to distraction!
The fact is that there are scores of other crimes of commission and omission that make touring in Canada a self-inflicted nightmare. No one ever mentions the rest-room scandal; the lack of signs and directions that make the cities—all of them— a hair-raising maze to visiting motorists; the chaos created by weekday half holidays; the plight of Americans caught unawares on statutory holidays; the potholes in city streets; the rivalry of competing tourist-camp operators; the universal parkingspace famine; the general unhelpfulness of the local population to tourists with problems; the appalling meals served in restaurants across the prairies; the almost universal lack of reliable tourist information.
That will do for a starter. But before we begin documenting the case let’s take a good look at a tourist.
He is not at all the sort of fellow the touristbureau managers seem to imagine. To them a tourist is a statistic. He is so many more or so many less than last year. He hits the border with pockets bulging with American dollars he is in a frantic mood to spend in Canadian stores. He’s the last zero but one on the annual estimate of the amount of money spent in Canada by American holidayers.
In fact, he is an ordinary guy, who works at an ordinary job and has to save his money for several months in order to spend his two weeks in Canada. He doesn’t come to Canada on a shopping splurge; he comes to have a holiday.
At the end of his vacation he will probably head home more than a little disappointed with a country that plasters all its store windows with cheap “Tourists Welcome” signs and does so little to make touring tolerable. Of course, he will take back many pleasant memories of friendly people and good times; but he will also remember getting lost in Toronto or Montreal and the difficulty he had trying to find the Toronto Zoo, the awful rest rooms everywhere, the rough city streets, the indescribable highways of the prairies.
Let’s take a look at this country through the windshield of a tourist’s car.
Early last summer I was driving from Toronto to Ottawa over No. 2 highway when I hit the main
street of Oshawa. I had planned to stop there for lunch, but my car and I took such a beating on this street that I got mad and vowed I would never spend a dime in Oshawa. In addition, I decided on the spot that I’d refuse to stop even for gas in any town along the way that didn’t have enough civic sense to do something about its holes. By the time I got to Kingston several hours and a dozen towns later, 1 was famished and out of will power so I stopped to eat; I spent the rest of the journey wishing I hadn’t.
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A Tourist Talks Back
Continued from page 16
It was on this trip that I discovered the truth about the “Tourist Information” signs you see plastered up around the country. I stopped at a filling station outside Kingston for gas and to stretch my legs. From Kingston there are two roads to Ottawa—Highway 15 through Smiths Falls and Highways 2 and 16 through Prescott and Kemptville. I wondered out loud to the filling station operator how Highway 15 was, if it were in better shape than the others.
“Gosh, mister, I couldn’t tell you. Heard it wasn’t too good a while back but then I think they were fixing it.”
We stood around fora while smoking. I asked several other questions and got similar replies. Finally I said something like this:
“I see you’ve got a brand-new Tourist Information sign. What kind of information are you supposed to provide?”
“You’ve got me there, mister. As a matter of fact all I know about it is that a salesman for the oil company came around last week and nailed it up. He had a whole bundle of them and was putting them up all down the line.”
An isolated case? Not in Canada. When you want information, the trick is to watch for the places where the big trucks stop and talk to a driver.
In the United States things are handled differently. In Louisville, Ky., for example, any filling station will get immediately, by telephone, any information required by a tourist regardless of the direction he is taking.
What does a tourist want to know? Many things. Are there any good cabins or camps 200 miles farther along? Or should he plan on stopping in a hotel at London and if so which one? What are his chances of getting into a summer camp around Ottawa for a couple of days? What rates do they charge? What is there to see in places like Brockville and Kingston and Portage la Prairie and Brandon? Should he plan on stopping there or should he go on another 50 miles?
Lost In Our Big Cities
To a tourist, place names in Canada are dots on the road maps in his glove ; compartment and nothing more. It is when he gets inside the larger dots and ! tries to find his way around that his trouble really begins. It doesn’t matter particularly whether the dot has the name of Winnipeg, Toronto or Montreal. He’ll be driven frantic within 30 minutes regardless.
As any resident of Toronto or Winnipeg will explain, theirs is the easiest city in the country to find your way around in. Nobody could get lost in Toronto! No? I got lost twice going through it after I thought I knew my way around. New York is a delight to tourists because it is superbly equipped with street signs. Canadian i cities, all of them, are the opposite for the opposite reason.
Toronto, bad as it is, is picketfenced with street signs compared with Ottawa where an incomparably bad job of street lighting and nonexistent signs have made it the worst maze in Canada for tourists. It would be a simple thing, you would think, for tourist-conscious storekeepers to club together to erect a big sign in Ottawa to direct visitors around Confederation Square. But nobody, apparently, thinks of such simple things in Ottawa or anywhere else.
Winnipeg last year decided to install a complicated system of traffic lights at the corner of Portage and Main, the town’s major bottleneck and busiest intersection. Three lanes were established, one by the curb for a right turn on an arrow, one in the centre for straight ahead on the green, one on the left for a left turn on an arrow. For weeks traffic policemen were put on duty to educate the populace in the way the system worked. But did anyone think of erecting signs to explain to tourists what lane to get into and what signal to move on? Of course not.
Such seemingly little things as street signs, clear directions and information are important to tourists because we always have problems on our mind as we approach your city or town. If we have been away from home for long, our first thought will be to locate the post office to see if there is any word from Grandma who has the baby in her care. So we stop to ask the first I friendly looking native where the post office is. It turns out to be about 12 blocks away on Main Street. Knowing from experience that directions gathered at random are liable to be inaccurate, the tourist starts looking at about seven blocks. If he slows down to get his bearings, he’ll get a blast from an impatient motorist or bus driver behind him. If he stops to orient himself near the curb he’ll get more blasts from the impatient natives. Eventually he gets to the post office and tries to find a place to park. All the space is occupied by natives.
The post office general delivery window is the tourists’ pipe line home. I happened to be in front of the Winnipeg office on Civic Holiday last summer—the first Monday in August, traditionally. The general delivery wicket was closed. Tourist after tourist came to knock fruitlessly on the window.
“It’s a holiday here today, brother,” some one shouted from inside. “General delivery won’t be open till tomorrow morning.”
Obviously the idea of catering to the needs of tourists is not one to keep anyone in the post office department awake at night; or awake, period.
No Parking, No Buying
Parking is a source of irritation for motorists everywhere. In some cities the traffic police are lenient and permit tourists to park where it is forbidden to the natives. A tourist, however, is on his best law-abiding behavior when he is away from home. Never take chances with the local constabulary is always a good safe rule, because you can never tell when you may be in a town where the police take a delight in being tough with tourists. In New York, Montreal and Windsor, the cops bawl you out first and look at your license plate afterward.
Putting it on its lowest common level, to wit the dollar, if a tourist can’t find a place to park he can’t spend his money. Inability to find a parking space saved me a lot of money in the last year in Toronto and Montreal.
To the fellow who goes touring with his family, which takes in most of us, keeping the small fry amused is one of the major problems. One way in which this can be done is to promise zoo trips, swimming, or a playground at the next town. These are genuine tourist attractions.
Why is it not possible for every city in Canada to erect on its main highway approaches a civic-operated information bureau, complete with clean rest rooms and large-scale maps showing the location of such things as zoos, playgrounds, stores, museums, tourist cabins and hotels, swimming pools and beaches, etc.?
The tourist bureaus that are maintained are usually located inside the city, where it is more trouble to locate them than it is worth. And they operate from nine until five. I can think of nothing that would so endear a place to tourists when, as they arrive in the afternoon, they can stop and pick up useful information about the city and about the country beyond. Efficiently operated, these offices would quickly become tourist attractions in their own right.
Canadian cities could also endear themselves to tourists by fixing their streets in the spring, as early in the spring as possible. Why the streets can’t be repaired at night instead of during the heavy traffic of the day is beyond my understanding. 11 is cooler at night, the job is done easier, yet in 13,000 miles of touring in the last year I can’t remember seeing a single night gang at work.
One day in September, an American tourist arrived at the town of Morden, Man., complete with a trailer, to inspect the Dominion Experimental Farm. Concluding his visit, he decided to drive into Winnipeg for a couple of days. The gravel highway between Morden and Winnipeg is good for Western Canada, which can be interj preted as awful by American standards. He rumbled over the washboard until he got to the town of Carman.
There, smack in the middle of the main street of the town, was a mudhole. The tourist hit it at 20 miles an hour, jarred the fixtures loose in his trailer, upset a cabinet and broke all the dishes.
“I know you have trouble maintaining your roads up here,” he said the next day to the Winnipeg Tribune, “but surely so bad a hole rated a warning sign! I’ve driven thousands of miles with my trailer and have never before broken even a cup. In Carman I really hit the jack pot. I’ve never seen a hole like that one and in the centre of the town.”
The Carman hole is one I got to know quite well. I went through it several times and to my knowledge it remained unattended for two weeks. But it was the Queen Elizabeth Way compared with some of the holes in Saskatchewan. On one highway, at about the same time, a motorist suddenly came to a dead stop in a ditch eight feet deep across the road. A bridge had been washed away but no warning sign had been erected. Save occasionally on the paved stretches of highway in Manitoba and Alberta, warning signs are almost unknown in the West.
Judging from the comments of visiting tourists collected by the LeaderPost of Regina, the warning most needed along thtf Canadian border was a simple oneKeep Out. Said F. E. Schutt of Sioux City, Iowa:
“I have never seen highways in as bad condition as those south of Regina to the border.”
A man from Washington, however, checked in with a word of cold comfort for the natives. Their roads, in his opinion, were only the second worst on the continent. The worst, he said, were in British Columbia.
Don’t be too quick to blame the provincial governments for the state of western roads. They need perhaps $200 millions to put their highway systems in first-class shape. They don’t begin to have that kind of money. If they devoted their appropriations to trunk highways, hundreds of miles of secondary roads would quickly revert to mud. So they spread their road allowances thinly for gravel veneer for thousands of miles, instead of for concrete for a very few hundred miles.
Where There’s No Rest
Until autos come equipped with inside plumbing, the need for restroom accommodation will remain one of the tourist’s main problems. This is widely recognized in the United States where, on the main highways, the filling station without a spotlessly sanitary rest room is the exception. In Canada j it is almost the rule.
No experienced tourist., if he has children along, ever completely fills'his tank with gas at any stop. The standard practice seems to be to order enough gas to half fill the tank. Then, if the need develops to visit a rest room, he can pull up to a filling station, get the gas and a round of Cokes and use the facilities provided. The per! formance can be repeated an hour later ; or even half an hour later if need be.
But our experience was that it can’t j be done between Ottawa and Windsor. For some queer reason, Canadian gasÍ station operators have taken to keeping ! their rest rooms locked. It adds nothing to a tourist’s enjoyment of his trip to drive up expectantly and discover that someone has taken the key home to lunch. Nor is there much pleasure for the mother of a colicky child to stand in a gas station door in Hamilton while one attendant bawls to another on the other side of the lot:
“Hey! Joe! Cot any idea where the key to the rest room is?”
For the reverse of all this, and for an example of tourist relations at its best, there is the T. Eaton Co. rest room at Emerson, where you cross into Manitoba from Minnesota. Built adjacent to the customs house at a cost of perhaps $5,000, it is a ten-strike with tourists. It is spotlessly clean, always. The toilets and taps work. The paper towel rack is always full. There is a waiting room with comfortable chairs. It is always open. I don’t doubt that it paid for itself in profits from grateful tourists the first year it was open.
Everybody in business cannot, of course, go to such lengths as these. That isn’t too important. What is important is the understanding shown in the problems of the tourist, an understanding that is so obviously lacking almost everywhere in the country.
Indeed, this misunderstanding of what is griping the tourist is superbly illustrated by the “rhubarb” over hotel accommodations. When it comes to finding a place to stay for the night, the hotel is the third choice of many experienced traveling motorists. The first choice is a modern tourist court or motel. Such a motel is complete with hot and cold water, a shower and toilet, inner spring mattresses and spotless linen. It is heated, too. Motels appeal to tourists because they are economical, efficient and convenient. An adult couple with a small child can get a first-class tourist cabin for $4. That is equivalent to a hotel room for $8, plus a dollar for tips in and out and $1 for car parking. The difference in sleeping cost over a twoweeks vacation could amount to $70, a sum of sufficient size to interest all but the most affluent tourists.
Unfortunately, in Canada too many camp operators are jealous of their competitors, hesitate to direct or recommend guests they cannot accommodate to other tourist camps or tourist homes. Rather than do that, some of them suggest that the tourist go to a hotel. Or, when he fills up for the night, the operator disappears and is unavailable for advice, or for service to his registered guests. Then, too, some camp operators seem to think that because they charge less than hotels they can get by with a bare minimum of service.
Tourist homes, rooms in private homes catering to tourists, are less convenient. But a tourist who develops a sixth sense and can spot the best of them will get splendid accommodation at a maximum of $3 a couple for the night.
The Answer: Co-operation
Canadians don’t like being told how Americans do things. But it is about time they paid some attention to how the people in the States cater to their tourists. They know how. Compare the attitude of a camp operator near Toronto with that of the people around St. Louis. The former didn’t know if any other camp in the vicinity had any vacancies, he didn’t know wh their rates were, or what accommod. tion they offered and obviously hopea 1 would pass them by if I happened to find them. In St. Louis we drew up to a place that looked like something out of Hollywood. It was full. The attendant dropped what she was doing, put in at least half a dozen phone calls, found a place that she thought would be suitable, told us how to get there and directed us to several others to be tried if her recommendation failed
There is a moral being pointed here. It is co-operation. The tourist business is big business and it’s going to get bigger, if the people with the biggest stake in it will stop talking about vague generalities and thinking too directly in terms of dollars and get down to selling service to the public. No section of the country is without tourist attractions. Our trouble is that we have spent far too much time, money and energy selling the natural attractions and completely neglected the amenities that are an integral part of the piece.
We’re like the family that kept inviting our rich cousins to pay us a visit. We bombard them with pictures of the house, snapshots of the kids, colored paintings of the lawn and shrubbery. But when the cousins arrive they have to wade through mud to get into the house because the sidewalk is broken. Inside, the furniture is falling apart, the plumbing has just gone out of order. The kitchen stove isn’t working and the dinner set got broken when the cupboard collapsed. So, instead of putting the house in order and trying to make them comfortable, we invite them out to smell the roses and see the scenery. ★