Disney Quebec

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A theme-person's protest.

Earlier this summer, during one of our smog days, a horse fainted on our street. He lay there blocking the traffic until he was intravenously revived and shipped back to his stable. The heat, the steep hills and the fumes from the tour buses - which make 45,000 trips through our neighbourhood per year - nearly finished the horse off. The tourists in the calèche he'd been pulling went back to their hotel and found some other entertainment for the afternoon.

Built as a fur-trade post in 1608, Quebec City's economy thrived on the fact that people in London England thought wearing funny black hats was dead cool. Now the economy thrives on something just as odd and inessential: tourism. But Quebec City is fainting under the weight of tourists.

This is North America's oldest fortified city, and it's so beautiful that 6-million people per year come to visit it. All summer long, the sidewalks of the main streets and squares are a seamless throng of people. They are often standing motionless, gazing up and down the street, or at a map, or straight up in the air. As often as not, they are looking through the lens of a camera.

After a while they amble on, drifting across the street in front of traffic. You can tell which of the drivers in the cars are locals; they are the ones who are bright red in the face and have green smoke billowing out from their ears. Then there are the teenagers, who race about in small clumps, looking anxiously around and flailing their sharp-edged clipboards dangerously, having been coerced by their teacher into an educational treasure hunt to keep them out of mischief. When they are in larger batches, one or two invariably shout something bravely in French at me and then rush off laughing.

By late summer, even the calèche drivers are losing their customary professionalism. "And there's a typical Quebecois parlour with an eighteenth century rocking-horse," said one, pointing through our window with his whip at our late 1980s chunky-chainsaw-era rocking horse.

Tourists spend nearly a billion dollars and provide 23,000 jobs in the Quebec City region. "Tourism keeps the buildings restored, the museums and restaurants open. Do you think 4,500 residents [of the Old City] could keep all this going without tourism? We wouldn't even have running water," says David Mendel, who lives here and runs Baillargé Cultural Tours. But he also fears that his clients - some of the wealthiest tourists - will lose interest if there are no more real people living here. "Tourism is an integral part of Quebec's identity. But it's a menace too. It has to be channelled intelligently."

If you go shopping for an Inuit carving, a traditional-style Québecois decoy duck, a tee-shirt with "I Love Quebec" on it, or an etching of the Château Frontenac, you're in luck. If you want to eat in a French or Italian restaurant, look no further than the next corner. But there's only one small grocery store, one drugstore and one hardware store left. No tax breaks are given to providers of essential services.

Perhaps more than any other feature of the tourist trade, it is the tour buses that threaten to make the place uninhabitable. They are noisy and smelly, they shake the centuries-old foundations, they block the view, they pollute. The city has begun to control them, but stops short of banning them, as Carcassonne, a medieval walled city in France, has done. Benoît Bossé is a member of the Comité des citoyens du Vieux Québec, a residents' group that has lobbied against the buses for years. "I was on the city's consultative committee for a while," he says, "but of the twenty members, I was the only one not involved in the tourist industry."

Tourists on foot often peer in our window as they pass by, hungry to see genuine family life. On my street alone - a short one - there are eight hotels and a restaurant, so there's not much room left for us regular theme-people. Several houses stand empty, as American tourists are beginning to like Quebec houses so much that they buy them (five in our block alone), as second, third or fourth residences, and then spend a few weeks per year in them.

The resulting impression of quiet gentility is shattered if you walk twenty minutes down the hill to rue Saint-Joseph. There you will find the poor, for Quebec City is the second-poorest city in Canada. The chasm between government tourism revenues and the poor of the city, as well as between the quality of residential life and the profits of the tourist trade, cry out for a "more equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of tourism," as the 1995 Charter for Sustainable Tourism calls for.

But in spite of it all, I love living here. I love living in a city that is beautiful. I was born here. My ancestors come from here, and I can point out to my daughter her great-great-great-grandmother's haberdashery shop (now selling decoy ducks and t-shirts). I can walk fifty metres up the road and I'm on the Plains of Abraham, a 100-hectare park stretching along the top of the cliff beside the river. I know and like many of my neighbours, including the American ones, and I wouldn't live anywhere else. The tourists are right to come, dammit.

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