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Montreal Renaissance

Pride, size, economy, and a quest for the 2006 Gay Games are moving Montreal up the desirable destination list for American gay and lesbian tourists.  But what about Canadians?  Are we neglecting a prime travel spot in our own backyard?

For a time it seemed to have just stopped, and we began to think it was over.  Looking around, we asked each other, "What do we do now?  Do we go where everyone is expected to be?  Will they be there yet?"

Indecisive, we waited a bit more.  And sure enough, coming over the hill, there it was:  the rest of the parade.  We knew it couldn't have been over; that's why we waited.

It was Sunday, August 6th.  Pride day in Montreal - called Divers/Cite.  And the rising figures on the hill horizon - in all their animated numbers, joy and glory - were symbolic of the city itself.

They changed the parade route this year.  Having grown too big, it needed to be on a boulevard instead of a street.

A lot of things have changed in Canada's original cosmopolitan city.  The former sweetheart of a financial, industrial, and cultural centre is rising on the North American urban horizon.

And gay and lesbian Canadians should really check it out.

"For those who haven't visited [recently] I would say that within the past five to six years events such as the Black & Blue Party and Divers/Cite have grown so much that they're putting the city upside down and transforming the atmosphere," describes Jean-Francois Perrier.  "And people really should experience that," he declares.

Mr. Perrier is the manager of gay and lesbian programs with Tourisme Montreal.  That not-for-profit, non-governmental organization charged with promoting Montreal as a destination has been actively targeting the gay and lesbian market.  As has the Quebec government.

In March of this year Tourisme Montreal participated in the first International Conference on Gay Tourism in New York.  The following month Tourisme Quebec took part similarly in the 8th International Gay & Lesbian World Travel Expo.  Later, in June, Tourisme Montreal entered a float in San Francisco's Pride parade and attended the Gay and Lesbian Travel Association meeting.

The government of Quebec has received the first Global Leadership Award for openness and involvement in the development of the gay and lesbian tourism market.

Explains Mr. Perrier, "Six to seven years ago we noticed that the community was very organized in terms of travel, and a very interesting market segment to develop in terms of numbers that could increase to Montreal, so we thought it would be a nice thing to specifically design promotion for them.

"Montreal is already a very gay destination," continues the warm and engaging French Canadian.  "It has so much to offer, [so it's] just a question of promoting that much more."

Indeed, his office proudly distributes its own glossy brochure, entitled "Gay & Lesbian Vacations a la Montreal,"  in addition to employing a kit bag of other promotional tactics.

If Canadian gay and lesbian travelers haven't noticed the resurgence of Montreal as a centre, mainstream Americans have.

In July, Wired Magazine ranked Montreal among the 46 hottest high-tech cities in the world.  On a scale of 1-16, Montreal scored '12,' the same score achieved by New York and Seattle.  It was the only Canadian city to make it onto the 'hot' list.

Proclaimed a Washington Post headline in April, "Montreal is rebounding from 3 decades of decline; City no longer feels it has inferiority complex as revival takes hold."  The story went on to say "As the rest of Canada turned its back on Montreal, Montrealers returned the favor, focusing their attention on expanding markets in the United States and Europe just as global trade began to boom ... The efforts have transformed Montreal into one of the most open economies in the world."

Gay and lesbian life in that extremely accepting city is reflecting that.

Attendance at Divers/Cite this year grew 20-30 percent, from 500,000 to 600-650,000.  The festival is less than 10-years old.  Attendance is similarly increasing at other mega events regularly scheduled throughout the year.

The Bad Boy Club of Montreal - a fundraising organization for people with HIV/AIDS - puts on enormous parties almost monthly.  These include the Red Weekend in February (for Valentine's), Bump in March (skiing at Mont Tremblant), Wild & Wet / Hot & Dry in May ('Bare as you dare' with water pistols), Twist in August (for Pride), the flagship Black & Blue at the Olympic Stadium in October, and Bal des Boys on New Year's Eve.

An Artfest was held this July, the annual film festival Image&Nation occurs in late September, and of course, Divers/Cite is in early August.

"Even the village is organizing more events," adds Mr. Perrier.

The quebecois warmth, passion, and 'savoir faire' continue to remind visitors that they are indeed in a different culture.  Spontaneous dancing in the streets punctuated Divers/Cite, and fully accessorized parade goers - some of whom held hands - walked unnoticed outside of the village.

The accommodation sector of the tourism industry has taken note.  The Hotel du Fort made a few ... policy changes and now assures that the old "two men or women, one king sized bed - there must be some mistake" scenario typical of front desks will not occur at theirs.

In the world famous four season destination of the Laurentians, the Hotel Club Tremblant, recently renovated but retaining its rustic charm, now features a Spa-sur-le-Lac where one can self-indulge and come out looking better for it.  The stress of hectic life fully disappears during fine dining for two with a full view of the lake.

But back in town the general atmosphere of depression and fatigue is gone.  People on the streets are moving quickly again, and amid the new office towers is a sense of  ... power.  And money.

Perhaps the disappearance of the infamous wheel sized pot-holes on Ste. Catherine Street says it all.  But economic indicators over the past year verify the street observations.

In its Spring 2000 Metropolitan Outlook, the Conference Board of Canada described a "strong" labour market in second-half 1999 Montreal which "buoyed disposable income."  It reported a "solid" 5.2% growth in retail sales and 4.6% (real) growth overall.  Unemployment reduced from 11% to 8.7% in 1999 while housing starts increased 25%.  With low inflation, it considers Montreal to be "one of the cheapest metropolitan areas in which to live or invest in North America."

Forecasts for the city's economy are quite encouraging, and "will support a 5% increase in personal income in 2000," the report continued.  It further predicted 133,000 new jobs over the next 5-years but added, however, that "weak demographic requirements will mitigate the potential for a sustained strong recovery in the housing sector in the medium term."

It appears that all Montreal needs is more people.

Wrote the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal in February of this year, "There's no denying that Montreal's knowledge economy continues to carry many sectors, but we frequently overlook its weak demographic growth, which in turn translates into weak consumption ...."

Further data from Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada reveal that interprovincial migration, although reducing, remains negative:  Montreal's population is increasing through immigration.

And although the unconstitutional language laws of Quebec's Bill 101 remain in effect, for whatever reason - the reputation of the Quebec government for selective enforcement, the focus of Bouchard on rebuilding the economy as opposed to separation, or the new global outlook of Montreal - a 'French only' attitude towards tourists could not be found.

Indeed, the city is estimated to be 80% bilingual.

Riding this economic wave is the bid to host the 2006 Gay Games.  Supported by all three levels of government, the Bidding Committee firmly believes its nomination can win.  It will be competing against four other cities:  Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego.

"Montreal has all the necessary cultural and sporting infrastructure to host the Games," said the Committee in a statement in June.  "Open to the world, peaceful and tolerant, any and all forms of discrimination towards gays are forbidden ... Contrary to the other bidding cities for 2006, entry to Canada of HIV-infected people is permitted.  In addition, the Canadian exchange rate will make Montreal a very alluring North American choice," it continued.

According to Mr. Perrier, who is on the board of directors of Montreal 2006, the idea first arose among members of Team Montreal several years ago.  A bid was made to host the 2002 Games, but the decision went to Sydney, Australia.

Explains Mr. Perrier, "I think there was a mood [at the time of choosing the 2002 host city] that [the Games] had to go still more international.  For Sydney it was their third bid - they did a really good job in preparing, they worked hard.  Montreal's [2002] bid was its first time.

"We have all the facilities required for the Games.  Most of [the events] would be close to one another.  So in two or three main sites we have all the facilities.  Next time the Games [are expected to be] back in North America," he adds.

"It's ironic because in 2006 the debt on the [1976] Olympic Stadium will finally be paid!" he jokes.

Tourisme Montreal is supporting the bid.  Projecting a $17-million spin-off from Divers/Cite this year alone, the organization is on board with Montreal 2006.

"The Gay Games presents a very special opportunity to raise Montreal's profile considerably on the international scene," it said in a July statement, estimating that 6-10% of the $1.8 billion annual tourism take comes from between 500,000 and 1-million gay and lesbian visitors.

Its Pride parade entry in San Francisco this year was a model which combined the Golden Gate Bridge and Olympic Stadium Tower.

Entitled "Montreal Salutes San Francisco," the float was accompanied by 18 dancers from the Montreal fitness group Gayrobic who performed a choreographed piece to the music of the 1976 Olympic Games.

The float won the "Fabulous Visitor Contingent Prize" for best entry by an outside organization, and was given coverage on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although Tourisme Montreal admits that spin-offs from the gay and lesbian market are difficult to project, it's likely well aware that authorities in Sydney pegged the economic impact of the 2002 Games earlier this year at A$200-million.

But it will be a long road to winning host city for 2006, even with all the awards, successes, and developed competence to date.

"We're hoping in the next month to make everybody in Canada aware of the bid," says Mr. Perrier.  "We're the only Canadian city [competing] and at some point it would be nice to be a nationally supported bid," he concludes.