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Tourist Trap or Just Business?

Whether you work in tourism or not, it is well known that many visitors are not happy with the price gouging in the tourist district. Returning visitors often have the same complaint but continue to be drawn in by the beauty of the falls. This has gone on for many years, but just how many? I did a little research and found some very interesting facts on the subject and I wanted to share some of it with you. Below is a snippet from the book The Second Greatest Disappointment by Karen Dubinsky. What do you think? Is Niagara Falls a tourist trap or is it just business?

Niagara was home to colourful characters and romantic stories, but its tourist industry, according to most visitors, left a lot to be desired. From almost the first time that Niagara was claimed for tourism, in the 1820s, travelers have expressed their disapproval with how the place was being run. By the 1830s visitors were sending out warnings. In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville urged a friend to “hasten” to Niagara, because he didn’t “give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract.

Two long-standing complaints were that Niagara was being ruined and that a Niagara holiday was too expensive. Visiting in the 1850s, Isabella Bird resented the distractions of “parasitic guides, sandwich-eating visitors, vile museums, pagodas and tea-gardens,” and William Ferguson agreed that Terrapin Tower, the staircases to the base of the Falls, and “some twopenny-halfpenny museums, which all cluster about the edge of the falls, spoil the effect sadly.” In 1871 English visitor Henry Jones was astonished that the spectacle he had come so far to see was “choked in the horrible vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny artifices which have pushed and elbowed to within the very spray of the Falls, and ply their importunities in a shrill competition with its thunder.”

Another wrote, humorously, of the defilement by billboards: As you stood on the Table Rock, the finest point from which to view the Falls, a huge board, which you could not possibly evade, informed you all the time that Jennings liver pills were sure, quiet but searching. The fine trees which frame every lovely picture on Goat Island had been let out to a wretch who had painted on every trunk the startling fact that “gargling oil was good for a man and beast,” and the lovely rocks on Luna Island resounded with the cry that Love’s worm powder was never known to fail.

Even worse, a sojourn at the place cost a lot. Amelia Murray, visiting from Britain in the 1850s, wrote sarcastically, “The English are accused of being a grasping nation in requiring fees for sights, but nothing I ever met with equals the charges for the contemplation of Nature here.” Others noted the need for “well stuffed pockets” when visiting, and an anonymous reporter for the Canadian Illustrated News, visiting one afternoon in 1876, learned quickly that rather than “doing” Niagara, “Niagara was ‘doing’ me.” He remarked, “The Falls were sublime, the cost of seeing them, ridiculous.”

Perhaps the most telling comment on the expense of Niagara is a handwritten message scribbled on the back page of the Toronto Metro Reference Library’s copy of F.H. Johnson’s 1865 Guide to Niagara Falls and Its Scenery. Someone, presumably the original owner of the guidebook, had totaled up the charges at the Falls, including the price of the book ($1.00) and fees for tolls, museums, carriages, and hotel. The cost came to $15.40. Beside that figure are three words written in ink: “Grandeur is Expensive.”

The cause of both of these problems—expense and desecration—lay with one source: Niagara’s tourist industry. Complaints about what one visitor to Niagara called the “disgustingly obtrusive civilization that crawls over its sides” were nearly universal. Tourist spoke bitterly of the “hateful race of guides…miserable little peepshows and photographers, bird stuffers, shell polishers, and collectors of crystals,” who were everywhere. It seemed that “the very pick of the touts and rascals of the world had assembled here.” One visitor, who counted fourteen different “hotel runners” at the train station, was constantly “dogged over every inch of ground” by “guides, photographers, shop-mongers and toll-gatherers.” Occasionally a guidebook tried to mute such criticisms. One book advised tourist that they would be “using facilities and improvements which have cost large amounts of money” and that “are only remunerated for a few months.”

Other guidebooks attempted to turn the frenzy of commerce into part of the allure: “Everywhere in the busy streets is heard the hum of merry voices and the tread of hurried footsteps. Glittering carriages, filled with entranced passengers, hastily diverge in every direction, to visit the various surrounding scenes of interest.” More often guidebooks turned to controversy to their advantage, claiming to be the only “original, correct and reliable” source of information or offering “special protection” for their readers. The Humbugs of Niagara Falls Exposed, published in 1884, was perhaps the world’s first manual for the post-tourist. It filled more of its pages warning readers about the “fake” (“impositions”) than the “real” (paid advertisements for “legitimate” photographers, hotels, and grocers). By the 1880s Niagara was a “byword and reproach,” calling up “visions of tawdry shows, extortionate hackmen and tradespeople, hideous factories, and the disheveled outskirts of an ugly village.” It was a place, according to a New York journalist, “no American can visit without feeling his face burn with shame.”

These are strong words, and especially so for the “age of industry,” which makes the condemnation of commerce at Niagara Falls that much more paradoxical. The same newspaper that carried damning stories of the desecration of Niagara would also be singing the praises of industrialization in other towns, countries, and empires. The same travelers who were so put off by the sights and sounds of commercial activity at the Falls were men—and woman—of commerce themselves, whose comfortable circumstances gave them the leisure time and income to travel great distances, away from office, factory, or workshop. Niagara falls, for these descriptions, may well have been ugly and tawdry but so too, from all accounts, were the commercial and industrial centres of most of the nineteenth-century capitalist world. The ruin of Niagara at the hands of the rapacious free market, in particular, elicited widespread criticism and eventually led to (successful) calls for state control, and the criticism sprang from the elite, not wild-eyed radicals, trade unionist, or social reformers. Why wasn’t similar criticism raised, for example, against the equally ruined condition of urban landscapes, or around the issues of health or housing?

British novelist David Lodge has commented on the cleverness of the English ruling class, who located their places of work—the industrial north—as far away as possible from their places of leisure—the seaside resorts of the south. Perhaps this wry observation tells us a good deal about the situation at Niagara, which would long juggle, with varying degrees of success, its twin role as tourist and industrial centre. Yet it was not just the factories that marred the tourist gaze at Niagara. Nor were all visible signs of commercialism condemned with equal vigour. Visitors were well pleases, it seemed, with Niagara’s hotels. While the food and service sometimes elicited negative comments, the hotels themselves were usually lovingly described, and the views, especially from the private verandas, were awe-inspiring. Even in the 1880s, as the “free Niagara” campaign moved into full gear, visitors remarked on the “world-wide reputation” of Niagara’s hotels, in which the visitors “may agreeably extend his stay over several days.” Why, one might ask, did camera obscures and Indian bazaars disfigure the place but hotels did not? How do some sites and practices of capitalist market relations become subject to vociferous, moralistic criticism, while others are either ignored or, under some political regimes, cheered on as the best, most natural form of social organization?

The answer to this puzzle has something to do with the explosive mix of host and guest in the nineteenth century. When the guests were pampered members of the white upper class, and the hosts were—according to the guests—“saucy Negro” guides, “half tipsy” Irish hack drivers, and Jewish museum owners, tensions were bound to emerge.

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