Between fantasy and reality

When tourists think of Quebec, the St. Lawrence River is one of the main things that comes to mind, especially the wide eastern part of the river estuary, with its spectacular sunsets that give visitors the feeling of being by the sea.

In The river of great waters (The Great Waters River), Quebec filmmaker Frédéric Bach depicts a province divided by the St. Lawrence River into north and south shores. The river itself is presented as a highway in the days of schooners and coastal shipping, a playground for boaters and kayakers, and a backdrop for visitors to gaze upon on an after-dinner stroll in the summer. .

Panoramic view of Rocky Bay and the islands of the St. Lawrence estuary at Rivière-au-Tonnerre, on the North Shore of Quebec.
(Shutterstock)

But how did the river develop as a tourist destination? And for whom?

As a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, where I hold the Research Chair in Tourism Dynamics and Socio-Territorial Relations, I am interested in the development of tourist trajectories in non-metropolitan communities. This angle led me to work more specifically in eastern Quebec.


This article is part of our series The St. Lawrence River: In Depth. Do not miss the new articles on this mythical river of remarkable beauty. Our experts look at its fauna, its flora, its history and the challenges it faces. This series is brought to you by The Conversation.


From “white boats” to cars: the river remains central

Tourism ideas on the St. Lawrence River date back to the beginning of the cruise industry in the 19th century. A veritable passenger shipping empire was created with the formation of Canada Steamship Lines in 1913, which administered the famous steamboat “white boat” cruise circuit. These boats brought the industrial aristocracy of the time to the eastern part of the province, creating summer hotspots in Cacouna, St-Patrice, Métis-sur-Mer, Murray-Bay (La Malbaie) and Tadoussac.

The democratization of automobile transport at the beginning of the 20th century changed the hierarchy of tourist destinations, while maintaining the centrality of the St. Lawrence as an attraction. Vacationing is giving way to practices associated with circuits that will, among other things, transform the Gaspé Peninsula into a new destination. The visitor traveling by car creates an image of freedom.

A road along the sea
A road along the sea, in Gaspésie. The democratization of the car in the 20th century led to the creation of new circuits around the river.
(Shutterstock)

This new image was also built institutionally. The St. Lawrence is associated with ideas that correspond to the objectives of local elected officials and civil servants, such as economic development, service delivery and recreation.

This group had their own ideas of what tourists wanted. Regional tourist associations produce advertising photographic representations of the St. Lawrence. Economic development agencies have justified investments in road infrastructure. Cultural organizations have played on representations of the St. Lawrence in their programming to justify upgrading their facilities to meet the needs of tourist traffic in high season.

A perfect example of this is the concerted effort that led to the Government of Quebec’s Tourism Development Strategy for the St. Lawrence in 2014, which explicitly recognized the importance of the St. Lawrence River to Quebec’s tourism industry and proposed measures to develop and manage tourist activity around the territory. River.

Thus, the strategy reinforces the value of the St. Lawrence for the Quebec identity, while magnifying it as a dream tourist destination.

A sun sets on the horizon above a body of water.
A sunset, near Rimouski.
(Shutterstock)

Divergent representations of the same spaces

However, these conceptions are in contradiction with other forms of representation and institutionalization of place. The Government of Quebec’s 2013-2020 Climate Change Adaptation Strategy reveals a very different vision of the same place, now shaped by risks and constraints and the need to adapt to climate change.

We were able to observe this in two different case studies. On the one hand, the high tourist value of the coastal area of ​​Notre-Dame-du-Portage (on the south shore of the river) and Tadoussac (on the north shore of the river) pushes people to want to preserve the status quo facing the risks of erosion and submersion. They want to avoid a decrease in its value in case the climate risk comes into conflict with the ideals of tourists.

A whale's tail emerges from the sea, next to a boat
A humpback whale next to a tourist boat, during a whale-watching excursion in Tadoussac.
(Shutterstock)

With this in mind, short-term land value will remain the priority rather than questioning the use of the river’s edge. Concrete protection structures will continue to be favored over approaches aimed at preserving the ecosystem. Walls will remain and grow as coastal ecosystems decline.

Meanwhile, in the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, the growing attendance at the historic site of La Grave and tourist revenues serve to justify a major investment by the Government of Quebec to recharge the beach and limit erosion.

Tourist perceptions

Tourists’ perception of a place may appear relatively stable in space and time, with the sunsets of Bas-Saint-Laurent, the whales of Tadoussac and the monoliths of Mingan remaining icons. However, as observed during the summer 2020 pandemic, these notions can also collide like tectonic plates.

A woman stands among the rocks, on a river
A woman stands in front of limestone outcrops on Île de Nue in Mingan Archipelago National Park on the North Shore in August 2020. Many Quebecers discovered or rediscovered the river during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Shutterstock)

Eastern Quebec experienced a large influx of visitors to its beaches and natural spaces. Behaviors like unauthorized camping on beaches have made headlines. However, a more detailed analysis has shown that tourist mobility, truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has created different, even divergent, ideas and practices among tourists from the same places.

Campers at Rocher Percé, in Gaspésie. The influx of tourists to Gaspésie in the summer of 2020 has created tensions between summer visitors accustomed to southern resorts and those who prefer wild and undeveloped beaches.
(Shutterstock)

Vacationers accustomed to resorts in New England and the Maritimes, as well as those who frequent sun destinations in summer, have fallen back on the beaches of eastern Quebec, mainly those of the Gaspé Peninsula, as an alternative. These beaches have little or no beach type activities. The Gaspé beaches are wild and poorly developed, a place where residents and visitors meet randomly while walking. The cold temperature of the sea does not encourage swimming, except for the bravest.

Thus, tourist expectations collided, a conflict that extended to physical spaces as infrastructure could not meet the expectations of all travellers.

What kind of tourism?

Including a community in the development of river tourism, which is highly seasonal and associated with labor and business mobility, can lead to success. But development is not always viable for the resident population.

Indeed, tourism creates places separated from the social, political or cultural practices of their host environment to meet the needs and fantasies of the visitors who invest these places.

This trend towards disconnected tourist spaces has long been documented, especially in the production of consumption spaces for the purpose of capital accumulation. Tourism becomes a source of enrichment for a minority, sometimes to the detriment of the quality of life of the majority of the inhabitants.

The mayor of Percé, Cathy Poirier, denounced this trend: “We want to see the lights on in winter. In 2021, Percé passed a law prohibiting the transformation of family homes into seasonal tourist accommodation.

Rocher Percé and the small town, under the snow
The small town of Percé and its rock, in winter. The city banned the conversion of family homes into seasonal tourist accommodation so that residents could live there year-round.
(Shutterstock)

As residents watch visitors pass by, taking their tourism dollars with them, they are left with the distinct sense of expropriation. Visitors buy postcards but do not integrate into the territory, while seasonal peaks take up space and eliminate other necessary services during winter lows.

Despite its permanence as a resource and tourist attraction, the St. Lawrence River remains in a dynamic relationship that includes social and environmental tensions. These tensions go beyond tourism and call for placing the dynamics of the tourism industry at the heart of reflections on the development and aspirations of local communities.

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