The tourist heart of Montreal, a ghost town during a summer pandemic

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MONTREAL – Stripped of the crowds of visitors who usually flock to its venues, from the Grand Prix to its renowned festivals, Montreal is trying to reinvent itself during the coronavirus pandemic and save what is left of its summer. The city spends a lot and sponsors dozens of artistic performances in an attempt to attract visitors.

But despite his best efforts, the damage is too obvious.

“Look at the terraces here, they are all empty, it’s incredible,” said Sam Namour, owner of an Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal, pointing to the deserted cafes of Place Jacques-Cartier.

Over the past 40 years, Namour has welcomed thousands of visitors to its gallery, including former Presidents Bill Clinton of the United States and Jacques Chirac of France. But on this hot summer day, not a single person has entered his establishment since it opened three hours earlier.

About 11 million tourists visit the city in a normal year, 80% of them from outside Quebec, spending some $ 4 billion, said Yves Lalumière, head of the city’s tourism office.

With half of the 9,000 coronavirus deaths in Canada, Montreal and its surroundings have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The city has had to cancel major cultural events that in the past attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, including its world-famous jazz festival.

‘LITTLE GHOST CITY’

“One million tourists, in the lead” are expected this year, Lalumière said, saying 90 percent of the sector’s income is at risk.

Visitors must be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival in Canada, so tourists from overseas, mainly from France and the United States, are scarce this year.

“Old Montreal is dead this year,” Namour said.

“In summer, Place Jacques-Cartier is always full, you can’t see the ground because there are so many people there,” said Nadia Bilodeau, who runs an Italian restaurant next to the Namour gallery.

This year, however, it’s “like a little ghost town,” she says, looking at the restaurant’s empty patio.

Business owners are on the verge of making ends meet with state support.

Even visitors from other regions of Quebec are rare.

“Quebeckers are afraid to come to Montreal,” said Michel Archambault, professor of urban studies and tourism at the University of Quebec.

William Foster Friesen was the rare tourist in sight in recent days, spending a few hours en route between a trip to the Gaspé and his home in Toronto.

“I’ve never seen Montreal so empty,” he says.

PETANQUE IN THE STREET

The same scenes are playing out in the city center, where 400,000 workers have been largely absent since mid-March, most now working from home.

The beating heart of the city endures, however, although the energy has shifted to its outlying residential areas.

Dozens of kilometers of shopping streets have been laid out for pedestrians only, with water jets installed for young and old alike, and courts installed in the street for the outdoor bowling game known as the petanque.

The city is spending $ 400,000 to attract Montrealers to the center, by organizing 200 artistic performances in the squares during the rest of the summer.

But for some it is too little, too late. “A drop in the ocean! Said Archambault.

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