Tourists not coming here? Why?

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Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

Just back from a brief trip to the Laurentians, east of here, and I’m confused. Why, I wonder, do their small towns, farms and hilly forests attract so many tourists, while here in the Pontiac – with the same lakes and forests, farms and little towns – why do our tourism businesses struggle just to survive?

Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

Just back from a brief trip to the Laurentians, east of here, and I’m confused. Why, I wonder, do their small towns, farms and hilly forests attract so many tourists, while here in the Pontiac – with the same lakes and forests, farms and little towns – why do our tourism businesses struggle just to survive?
Laurentian resorts, hotels and campgrounds are busy. There are jobs there, it seems, and plenty of local retailers doing well from this region’s all-season tourism attractions. In the Pontiac, we have a few motels, an inn or two, restaurants in most towns, and no marina – despite the grand Ottawa River.
In short, why does the Laurentians’ tourism appeal come to a dead stop at our region’s eastern border?
We have smart promoters and tourism operators. Our MRC and provincial agencies are well aware of Pontiac’s tourism values – within an hour or so from Canada’s capital and Quebec’s fourth largest city. The MRC has diligent people working to attract visitors and investors. There are maps, brochures, digital offerings – all the usual, without the usual results.
Instead of again canvassing our lodging and restaurant operators, listing our tourism attractions, our highways and campgrounds, trails and horseback riding facilities – all of which have great potential – why don’t we ask the very folks who stay away why they stay away? 
With no claim to scientific correctness, but rather an informal discussion with innumerable city-dwellers (Gatineau, Aylmer, Lachute, Ottawa, Arnprior, and a few from Montreal), this is what I found, almost universally: Pontiac has an image problem. 
In the eyes of many francophone visitors, Pontiac has a negative image.  Very few say they’ve been here, even once, yet most believe the Pontiac is unfriendly, unkept, unserviced – and hostile to francophones. Anglophone visitors seem to feel travel within nearby Ontario is a better option, fearing the opposite – that Quebeckers, including the Pontiac, dislike anglophones!  Numerous anglophones told me they do not travel here because they feel their French-language skills are not good enough. Yes, a common perception!
The fear that Pontiac harbours a lot of anti-French hostility is widespread.  Quebecers’ long memories refer back to the battles of the last referendum. That’s the older folks. Younger people and young families fear we cannot offer them the attractions they seek – those which are both a lot of fun and stimulating, but which are also environmentally sensitive.
Outside, Pontiac seems to have a reputation for harbouring a population without loyalty to Quebec and/or interested mainly in old-fashioned rural recreation: mud runs, rodeos, drinking parties, hunting and fishing, all with plentiful alcohol, all considered too primitive by many modern city-dwellers. Too much drinking, junk food, noise and loud music, noisy off-road vehicles
and litter. Several people mentioned messy lots and homes lining Highway 148. 
Unfair? For sure! Inaccurate? For sure! But what can we do about it?
Certainly we are rural, with a lot of our free time dedicated to rural pursuits. These are not always popular with urban folks, although there are those who do haul their trailers up here for that very reason – open spaces, few people to bother them, lots of water, trails, and forest. Unfortunately, these people alone are not enough to support a thriving tourism industry.  We need to attract the mainstream,
not the more frugal or traditional type of tourism consumers.
Social and traditional media have not been kind to us. The daily newspaper in Gatineau-Ottawa reports on Pontiac events only when there are crimes, accidents or disasters. CBC and Ottawa media seem to have forgotten the Pontiac even exists, except for floods and tornadoes – again, as I hear it, because we engage in and offer little besides low-life partying or noisy, dusty and environment-damaging activities.
Readers of the Journal understand how distorted a picture this is of the Pontiac. We also understand how difficult the task of over-coming such prejudices is. But it does seem clear and imperative that we address and remedy this poor reputation somehow, rather than continuing to pump out tourism material indistinguishable from every other region in eastern Canada. How do we up-grade our modern tourism offering? How do we advertise our environmental care for all this?