The empty streets of Old Québec

Old Quebec hasn’t been itself lately. Streets usually teaming with people are nearly empty. Restaurants that would normally be full every noon and every night are struggling to stay open. Hotels that should be at capacity have occupancy rates that are a small fraction of what they were this time last year. COVID-19 has caused a disastrous 2020 for everything that depends on tourist traffic here in Québec City.

These dire straits have revived the debate about the role played by tourism in the economy of the Old City. Is it right that souvenir shops and restaurants have edged out the hardware stores and grocery markets? Is it fair that rents paid by locals are driven up by a proliferation of short-term vacation lodging? And what about what some see as an overabundance of hotel rooms in the Old City? In short, should the financial wellbeing of Old Québec be so strongly tied to tourism?

I do not claim to have answers to these important questions except to say that Old Québec has benefited greatly from tourism. That tourists want to come here – insist on coming here – is inevitable. And it is a good thing as well. The money they bring to town is a welcome stimulus to the Québec economy. But more importantly than that, their interest in our town today helps to preserve it for the generations of tomorrow. Some might find it paradoxical, but the Historic District of Québec exists because of – not in spite of – decisions made over the years to increase tourist traffic. In other words, judicious efforts to encourage tourism can constitute acts of conservation. That certainly has been true in the case of Québec City. Lord Dufferin and André Robitaille, the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the National Battlefields Commission all pushed projects that increased tourism in Quebec City and, in doing so, ended up adding to the sustainability of Old Québec as a cultural artifact.

I am disheartened to see the economic harm that COVID-19 has inflicted on Old Québec. But I am also confident that the Old City will come back better than ever when travellers are once again free to explore their world. I will be glad to see them here, buoyed by the fact that their presence will assure the survival of this historic district that is so dear to my heart. There is nothing in all of North America that compares to it.

20 thoughts on “The empty streets of Old Québec”

  1. Neil, how awesome it was to see this! I have missed your prolific way with words. It is a shame what Covid-19 has done to our world. Jay and i would love to come back to Canada and, especially Old Quebec!

  2. Richard Couturier

    Bonjour Neil, j’apprécie tes commentaires. C’est vrai que le Vieux-Québec souffre du vide laissé par l’absence de touristes. Les choses ont bien changé depuis mon enfance. Étant né à l’ombre du Château Frontenac, j’ai vu partir non seulement l’épicerie et les quincailleries mais aussi plus de 50% de la population intra-muros. Peut-être que cette pause sera favorable à un retour des choses et que le tourisme ne sera plus la seule source, ou presque, de revenus pour ce joyau du patrimoine mondial. Au plaisir!

  3. Michael Gardner

    So good to hear from you again! Sad to hear of the hardships of this beautiful and historic area. Let us hope and pray that by next season this great treasure is robust with business

  4. Neil, it is so good to hear from you as I have really missed hearing your column. It is refreshing to hear your optimism for post COVID-19. We too, here in San Diego are trying to that positivity in a trying time.

  5. Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to hear from you. This COVID has the world in a Topsy turvey situation. Stay safe.

  6. Thank you Neil, a ray of sunshine on a gloomy stormy day here in Ocala Florida, we had scheduled another Norwegian Cruise for September, but it has been cancelled, we have rebooked for next year. So fingers crossed, we may meet again

  7. Orlando, Florida–home of Walt Disney World–is also very dependent upon tourism, so we can sympathize with what you are going through. But better days are coming for us all.

  8. Quebec City was on our (cancelled) cruise itinerary for early August this Summer. Hoping to come back next Summer pending improved health conditions.
    The Webers/Paradis’

  9. Nice to hear from you Neil, we live in Georgia and Covid is raging. We look forward to visiting Quebec again. We enjoyed your stories into what is going on in Quebec.

  10. We agree with the other responses. We have missed your notes these last few months. Since its been a few years since our last visit to Quebec City, we had planned a trip for this coming October and were looking forward to possibly joining you again for a tour. Hopefully in the not too distant future things will improve we will be allowed to cross over the border once again. In the meantime stay safe and know that your msgs are much appreciated. Jim and Lauren

  11. Great to hear from you I fly flags of the places I have visited and when flying my Quebec flag I recall that wonderful and interesting day we spent with you thanks again Neil

  12. Thanks for the updates. I love Old Quebec and look forward to returning. I mostly look forward to an end to this pandemic for the health and welfare of all our communities.

  13. Heather Edwards

    Oh it’s so sad every where on the world has lost its sparkle , hopefully given time it will return.
    Trusting you and yours are keeping safe.
    Thanks for the update

  14. We were booked on a St Lawrence River Cruise from Kingston to Quebec City at the end of September but that of course has been cancelled. We were very much lookng forward to the planned 2 night stay in Quebec City at the end of the cruise before returning home to Ontario. Maybe next year it will work out.

  15. Francine Poulin

    Bonjour Neil, heureuse de voir le retour de tes textes. En effet, le Vieux Québec est plus tranquille que l’année dernière à cette même période. Il semble que les touristes québécois aient privilégié Charlevoix et la Gaspésie pour leurs vacances. Toutefois, à la boutique où je travaille, j’ai reçu des gens de Québec, mais aussi beaucoup de gens de Montréal et de l’Ontario. Ca ne comble pas le vide des touristes internationaux, mais ça permet de poursuivre les affaires. Là je vais lire tes autres textes. Bye et à bientot.

  16. It was good to hear from you again, Neil. We are, indeed, living in an era of extremes. My wife and I first visited Quebec City via cruise ship in 2014. We absolutely loved the beautiful old city and vowed to come back. We finally made it in the fall of 2019, and we could not believe the difference. There were so many cruise ships there at the same time that ours had to be docked well outside of town, and we had to be bussed into the city to see it. We took that bus ride only once because there were so many people in town we literally could not walk anywhere. Tourists were shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalks, in the shops, and even in the streets. After less than an hour of constant bumping and jostling we gave up in great disappointment and returned to our ship.

    Looking at your picture of an empty city in this post, it is sad to see such an extreme opposite of our last visit. We hope when Quebec emerges from this pandemic that planners can reopen the city to tourists, but recognize that there need to be limits that preserve the beauty of the city and the pleasure of the visit that we experienced in 2014, but certainly not in 2019.

  17. We miss being able to travel to Canada. We have a beautiful little grand daughter that we have not seen since last Christmas. We zoom and we FaceTime, but it is not quite the same. Of course we miss Quebec and the delicious food and gorgeous scenery.

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