March 5, 2008

Niagara's land is key to the ecotourism industry

If Niagara wants to maintain its image as the lush, fruit-laden provence (think France) of Ontario, it needs to protect the look of the land, says John Middleton, Brock University tourism and environment professor.

That means preserving the more than 3,000 acres of tender-fruit land at risk following the demise of the juice-grape industry last year and the possible blow to 150 peach and pear growers if the CanGro plant in St. Davids closes, possibly by the end of the month.

If a massive amount of vacant, weed-filled land is left behind in the wake of recent economic setbacks, expect it to hurt Niagara's tourism industry, Middleton said.

"The future of the Niagara brand, as it were, is in danger over the medium term if anything were to get in the way of our beautiful landscape, which is the basis for how we bring out tourists here," Middleton said.

People come to Niagara expecting the fruit belt, and that includes peaches, pears, cherries and wine, said Magdalena Kaiser-Smit, director of marketing and communication for the Niagara Culinary Trail.

Kaiser-Smit, whose organization creates a map of businesses that sell local goods, said losing any local crop is a blow to the industry and tourism.

Consumers need to be constantly reminded about the importance of buying local, she said. Several Niagara organizations, such as the Culinary Trail and the Niagara Agri-Tourism Centre in Welland, encourage people to buy local. As well, there is an ongoing Good Things Grow in Ontario campaign, run by the province.

"People in the region, and perhaps visitors, are not realizing what we produce, or it hasn't been marketed as well over the last number of years," Kaiser-Smit said.

"With that, it's kind of created a lack of demand. It's why farmers are struggling and why people aren't investing as much anymore into developing new (agricultural) products."

The land at risk, which wraps around the Golden Horseshoe, is protected against urban development by the provincially mandated Greenbelt Act.

That makes keeping the land viable for ecotourism and agritourism all the more important, said Patrick Gedge, chief executive officer of the Niagara Economic Development Corp.

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