With more than 28,000-acres of some of the most scenic lands in Ontario, Grey Sauble Conservation Authority (GSCA) was a popular spot in 2020.
“We estimate that our properties saw, at least, a 50 per cent increase, with estimated visitation of over 300,000 annual visitors,” said Tim Lanthier, CAO for GSCA.
Lanthier said the conservation district attributes the dramatic increase in visitors to a combination of more flexible working hours for people, people out of work, and people generally staying within the province for their vacations.
“Additionally, in the early stages of the spring and summer, there were not a lot of alternatives for people other than visiting outdoor recreation areas, parks and conservation areas,” he said.
The conservation authority has labelled the monumental increase in traffic as “over-tourism”, which Lanthier defines as visitation in excess of the capacity of the area – whether that be the physical capacity, the ecological capacity, or the social capacity.
“For GSCA, this increase in visitation was accompanied by an increase in compliance issues. This ranged from parking issues and visitors traveling out of bounds, to litter and waste. These issues have a direct impact on the quality of the experience for others, the integrity of the natural areas, and can cause nuisance issues for neighbours,” he explained.
However, the over-tourism also had an upside – parking revenues.
At its recently held annual general meeting, GSCA reported a gross revenue from its parking system of $135,000 in 2020. This compares to $52,000 in 2019, $32,000 in 2018 and $16,000 in 2017.
“It wasn’t just the increase in traffic, but rather the increase in staff presence on-site that resulted in a noticeable increase in parking revenues,” explained Lanthier.
Revenue from parking is directed toward property maintenance, property taxes and capital investments.
“Additionally, we are moving to a new funding model whereby we will use some of the parking revenue from the previous year to invest in seasonal employment for park ambassadors that will provide a staff presence on-site at several of our more popular properties,” he explained.
Lanthier said GSCA does not expect the visitation numbers to slow down in 2021, especially with the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
As such, the conservation authority has a few changes in store for its properties for the coming season – including the establishment of a non-resident parking pass and an increase to its daily parking rates.
For 2021, the single park, single-day parking pass has increased from $6 ($8 on weekends at Inglis Falls Conservation Area) to $10 and a season parking pass will cost non-residents $75 for the calendar year.
The membership fee for residents of the GSCA watershed will remain at $40, which has been the fee for a yearly parking pass for the past four years.
“We do not expect any change to the non-resident visitation. However, we are hopeful that residents of the municipalities within our jurisdiction take advantage of the low-cost, high-value member’s pass this year,” Lanthier said.
In 2021, GSCA will also be installing gatehouses at Spirit Rock, Old Baldy and Eugenia Falls, in addition to the gatehouses that are already established at Inglis Falls and Hibou.
Lanthier said GSCA is also very aware of the growing issue of illegal parking that is taking place around outdoor recreation areas in Grey County.
“We will also be working with our municipal partners to try to alleviate illegal parking on the roadways outside of some of these areas,” he said.
“We are also working with other tourism partners in the area to collaborate on solutions to a common challenge. Visitors are coming, and we are working together to ensure that we can collectively manage this visitation.”
The conservation authority is also in the process of updating management plans for both Inglis and Eugenia Falls. The plans are said to address issues and opportunities at these properties and will set the path for future management goals and activities.
Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca