A top tourist town learns the hard way what it means to live in the age of social media
By Alec Bruce
There is no fabled drag in Lunenburg—no Abbey Road or Sunset Strip, no Broadway or Champs-Elysées. There is, however, Bluenose Drive, which skirts the town’s harbour like a tall ship’s gunwale. On it, a visitor will find the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, a whale-watching tour operator, and a stately cenotaph inscribed to “those who have gone down to the sea in ships and who have never returned” and to “those who continue to occupy their business in great waters.”
Mayor Rachel Bailey has lived and worked in Lunenburg—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995—all her life. Her family is from here. There’s no part of the community, roughly 90 kilometres down the South Shore from Halifax, she doesn’t love. But, it’s safe to say, she’s partial to its wharves and jetties. “Our working waterfront is an authentic place,” she says. “It’s where we stay true to ourselves. Around here, we like to say, ‘Visitors need to see fish guts on Bluenose Drive.’”
If only. Two years ago, Lunenburg’s sewage plant, built in 2003, began to fail. At the height of tourist season, it emitted so foul a stench that some locals threatened to pull up stakes permanently. Almost simultaneously, the main outfall beneath a major wharf on Bluenose Drive started belching more than its usual complement of effluent. Without missing a beat, Halifax media blanket-covered the story. “It was every tourist town’s worst fears come true,” a CBC piece blared. “People were calling the local harbour a ‘toilet bowl,’ ‘disturbing,’ and ‘disgusting.’ Some visitors even threatened to boycott the community…It was hardly the type of talk to be expected during the lazy days of summer in Lunenburg, rich in history, beauty and a sense of pride.”
In any other place, at any other time, the news would have stirred barely a ripple. After all, which coastal community in Atlantic Canada hasn’t, at some time or other, endured the consequences of its own sewage in the waters where people frolic and toil in boats? Halifax Regional Municipality—with a population of more than 430,000 and tourist spending that exceeds $1 billion a year—has only enjoyed efficient wastewater treatment for a decade or so.
But this wasn’t any other place or any other time. This was Lunenburg, one of the glittering jewels in the crown of the bluenose travel industry. And it was high noon in the age of the Twitterverse. Within seconds of the first report, the story went viral, everywhere. Says Bailey: “I had people from the other side of the country asking me why we do not have sewage treatment in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, we do have sewage treatment. But just try to explain that—just try to address the actual realities of a complicated situation—amid all the social media noise.”
All of which has left Lunenburg a tad gun shy about its future—not only as a world-class centre of tourism, but as a community. You can fix a sewer system, but in the age of iMessage, WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook and DM, can you right an international reputation gone sideways?
It certainly doesn’t help that certain residents still seem happy to join the fray. “My God, man, look at my boat,” instructs Bill Flower, proprietor of Lunenburg Ocean Adventures, who runs fishing and cruising charters from berths on Bluenose Drive. His Internet Movie Database (IMDb) profile lists, among his many credits, “marine co-ordinator” for local site work on the TV series Alias Grace and Haven. “Everything I have is covered in %&$#,” he thunders.
At one point in 2017, Flower was so incensed, he clashed with Bailey personally. Accused of throwing harbour sewage at the mayor, he was arraigned for assault. Though the charges were later dropped, he did sign a peace bond enjoining him from contacting her for one year. They haven’t spoken since.
All of which makes other Lunenburgers wonder whether they’ve crossed the threshold into another dimension. They peer out their windows and can see the town hall at the corner of Cumberland and King Streets, or Covey Island Boatworks on Burma Road, just past Shipyard Hill. Men and women still walk to work. Children still play in the park around the old Lunenburg Academy. But check any choice hashtag on Twitter, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Creature from the Black Lagoon had taken up residence.
To some extent, this was predictable. For decades, local officials and their counterparts at the provincial government had worked arduously to persuade the world that Lunenburg was a special place with a spicy, even controversial, story to tell.
Here, for example, early European settlers rebelled against the British when the garrison in Halifax failed to provision them sufficiently for winter; New England colonists supplanted Acadian farmers and fishers during the Great Expulsion of 1755; pirates and privateers roamed and plundered during the American Revolution and the War of 1812; and Chicago gangsters like Al Capone sourced their Prohibition rum from Jamaica.
Here, also, marine shipwrights and outfitters built the finest boats in the world. “The greatest fleet of deep-sea vessels in Canada was built, owned and operated in Lunenburg,” reads Lunenburg’s 1953 annual report. “More than 200 of these vessels were built in the local shipyard, including the Bluenose, undefeated international champion fishing schooner since 1921. The operation of this industry is in evidence all along the waterfront. At the harbour head is the local foundry, which manufactures marine engines, vessel equipment, and conducts general refits and repairs for all types of ships.
A good chunk of the inhabitants are employed in the fishing industry. The remainder of inhabitants are employed in the stores, the banks, the schools, the garages, the government offices, and other establishments which provide services.”
Photo Credit: Lunenburg Walking Tours
Times have changed, but not entirely. The 2016 Census says Lunenburg, with a population of 2,085, remains a working town with an unemployment rate of about nine per cent, and a median income of $28,000. But none of this is particularly sexy.
Where Lunenburg has seen true, palpable growth is in tourism—especially, the foreign variety. This town of slightly more than 2,000 permanent residents routinely attracts thousands to its shores each season along the rugged inlets of coastal Nova Scotia. They come for the British colonial vibe of salt boxes houses, Georgian gables and Victorian manses. They come for the whale watching and marine day tripping. They come for the risible tales of rumrunners and privateers, brigands and robber barons, phantoms and sea witches, hauntings and omens. They come and spend millions.
The data seem clear. According to a 2010 study by Acadia University economist Burc Kayahan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1995 “was estimated to increase annual visitor expenditures in Lunenburg. Annual benefits exceed the total costs of designation, and the present value of the benefits outweighed the present value of the costs by
$36 million over 1993-2009.”
Put another way, during this period the World Heritage Site designation directly boosted traffic to Lunenburg by an average of 6.2 per cent a year, pouring as much as $3.7 million a year into the community. Writes Kayahan: “From an economic perspective, the WH designation for Lunenburg appears to have been very favourable.”
As Ashlee Feener might say, “No kidding, Sherlock.” Or, she might if she wasn’t the co-owner of Lunenburg Walking Tours and as gracious as a guide (who can trace both sides of her family here back eight generations) can get. “Let me put it this way,” she says. “When I joined the partnership six years ago, we were lucky if we walked 2,000, maybe 3,000, people. Now, we’re guiding upwards of 9,000 a year.”
What’s more, she says, she’s observed an increase in the number of overseas customers: “Visitors are still coming primarily from Canada and the United States, but there’s been a big jump in the numbers from the UK, Germany, even Australia.”
She suspects growth in global tourism overall has had something to do with this. In fact, she’s not wrong. According to industry analytics company Statistica, the volume of international visitors to North, Central and South America grew by 5.2 per cent in 2017. The following year, Nova Scotia recorded its best tourism season ever: Total industry revenues reached $2.6 billion.
What’s also different, though, is the way people equip themselves to travel these days, and, to some extent, why they come to a place at all. Here enters social media. Consider that Six Degrees, the first recognizable social media site, launched with about 3.5 million members in 1997 (two years after Lunenburg had won its WH designation). Today, two-and-a-half billion people are currently hooked on these communications platforms. Statistica predicts that number will rise to 3.1 billion —or more than a third of the planet’s entire human population—by next year.
This is the world that Lunenburg and small communities like it now face. In this world, are they ready for their close-ups, for the “fish guts on Bluenose Drive?” Do they want to be? As Mayor Bailey and others here say, “it’s complicated”.
“I have no social media, because I hate it,” says Doug Philp, owner of Lunenburg Boat Locker which sells, among other things, maps, boat shoes and some of the best marlinspikes north of Montego Bay. “But, I have to admit it has brought a lot of people, a lot of tourism to the town. I’ve had this store for nine years, and I can see the change just in the recreational boating that’s coming in. It used to be one mega-yacht per season. Now, it’s like dozens.”
Adds Feener: “I see visitors every day, and I can tell you that people now communicate in ways they never did before. If anything is slightly off kilter…bang…it gets tweeted. Everyone has their phone out, all the time.”
“It seems clear that most Lunenburgers appreciate that in a tourist destination, living in public comes with the territory”
As for the sewage crisis, Lunenburg’s Town Council is well underway fixing the problems it can and negotiating with both provincial and federal governments for system upgrades that will probably cost anywhere from $6 to $16 million over the next couple of years. As for the creeping sense of unease with the new realities of heavy civic promotions followed by instant, frequently absurd, backlashes, only more time will tell. But there are clues.
“You know, a lot of people here are not happy with the increase in tourism,” says John McGee, who, in addition to serving as Deputy Mayor also performs as Town Crier (the irony of which does not escape him). “During the summer months, there’s no point in even going downtown anymore. You can’t park. Some people are saying, ‘Enough is enough, we don’t want to be another Banff.’ I don’t know whether that’s a majority sentiment, but it’s not a small number of folks anymore.”
Moreover, he says, “We have over 2,000 full time jobs in the town. Any threat to those kinds of concerns will be a problem. My biggest issue is maintaining a working town, not just a working waterfront. If we go too far on the heritage side, we might end up alienating some of the other businesses in town.”
Perhaps, but it seems clear that most Lunenburgers still appreciate that, in a tourist destination, living in public comes with the territory. Tolerating the farces, fictions, and overstatements so emblematic of social media, told and retold on the front lines of Bluenose Drive, might just be the price they pay for maintaining an authentic main drag in the growingly wild media frontier.