Stars rock for SARSstock as Toronto tries to revive tourism
by Ken Warn in Toronto
It's only rock 'n' roll, but Toronto is relying on it. Up to half a million fans were gathering yesterday for Canada's biggest-ever rock concert, a hastily organized one-day event aimed at reviving the city's SARS-stricken economy.
The gig, featuring Australian rockers AC/DC, American popstar Justin Timberlake and headliners the Rolling Stone, is aimed at luring back visitors from abroad and the rest of Canada who have spurned Toronto since SARS hit earlier this year. The outbreak of the respiratory disease, the worst outside Asia, has led to the deaths of 42 people.
The event, devised by a handful of Toronto powerbrokers including Dennis Mills, a local member of parliament, and backed by corporations such as Molson brewers, has generated plenty of excitement in the SARS-weary city.
For days Canada's headlines have been dominated by the run-up to the concert - unofficially dubbed "SARSstock" - after the 1969 Woodstock rock festival. Cynics are calling it "Promotional Rescue".
When the gates opened at 8am yesterday, thousands of fans, many of whom had camped out overnight, began streaming in. All the early arrivals appeared to be a mere fraction of the age if Stones frontman Mick Jagger, who has just turned 60.
The concert could generate more than C$50m (US$37m, €31m, £22m) for the city's economy, according to the preliminary studies by the Toronto Convention and Visitors Association. That includes about C$27m directly related to the concert, with most of the remainder from travel and accommodation.
Hotels around the Downsview Park venue are fully booked, while hotels across the city are reporting soaring occupancy rates, at least for this week. Many Toronto hotels have been more than half empty this summer, previously unheard of at the height of the tourist season.
More important than the direct spending is the message the city hopes to send to the wider world - that SARS is now firmly behind it. "Toronto and Ontario lost their reputations as good destinations that were safe," said Terry Mundell, president of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel & Motel Association. "What this concert does is reposition us among the international [tourism] community."
The number of visitors to Canada fell 5 per cent in May, the fifth consecutive month-on-month decline, while Canadian trips to the US increased. Overseas visitors to Ontario in May were 43 per cent down on December.
After the bands have gone, the tourism industry knows that it still has a tough fight on its hands. "Because of the magnitude of the damage, I think it is going to take a couple of years to recover," said Mr. Mundell.
Even before SARS struck, Toronto's tourism industry had been in steady decline.