Ottawa’s Rideau Canal costing the same, but opening less and less

Tourism officials say the winter attraction provides 'invaluable' experience

Rideau canal
Rideau canal

Climate change seems to be giving skaters less time on the Rideau Canal, at least in the past two years, but the cost of maintaining Ottawa’s signature tourist attraction isn’t shrinking.

This past season was among the shortest on record: 36 days open overall and 25 skating days.

The National Capital Commission, the federally funded agency responsible for the canal, budgeted $1.55 million for the canal this year, comparable to what it spent in recent years. If that budget number proves to reflect actual costs, the attraction will have sucked up about $62,000 in federal money per skating day.

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Compare that figure to a longer year, such as 2013-14, when a $1.53 million budget bought 58 skating days at a little over $26,000 apiece.

Over the last 11 years, the canal has been open an average of 48.3 days per season, with an average of 40 skating days, according to NCC records. During the 11 years before that — from 1995 to 2006 — the averages were 55 days open overall and 46 skating days.

The NCC did not tabulate skating days before 1995, but it did track the skateway’s opening and closing dates: in the 1970s and 1980s it was not uncommon for the season to stretch between 60 and 70 days.

Cédric Pelletier, a spokesperson for the NCC, said the federal organization is proud to offer the canal to residents and visitors.

“The Rideau Canal Skateway is a Canadian winter icon — a unique and internationally renowned signature attraction in the capital,” he said in an email. “It provides an unforgettable experience for hundreds of thousands of Canadians from across the country and visitors from abroad.”

That number of visitors fluctuates from as few as 339,698 visitors in the shortest season (2015-2016, when there were only 18 skating days) to as many as 1.3 million in longer years.

“Absolutely, we would get less visitation without it. I have no doubt.”

Pelletier’s email said the money is well worth it.

“The Rideau Canal Skateway provides an invaluable public good and experience in the Capital, while reaffirming Canadian identity and heritage.”

Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said the canal is absolutely a draw for out-of-town tourists.  

“Absolutely, we would get less visitation without it,” he said. “I have no doubt.”

He said it’s worth talking about the cost of operating the canal and whether there might be cheaper ways to do it, including shortening the length, but he said it’s definitely important to the city.

“The canal is an attraction in and of itself, both summer and winter,” he said.

Caroline Couture-Gillgrass, a spokesperson for Ottawa tourism, said, being as it is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Guinness world-record holder for largest skating rink in the world, the canal has a lot going for it.

She said the tourism board doesn’t keep specific numbers on whether tourists come specifically for the canal.

“It’s more intangible than that,” she said. 

This article originally appeared in Metro News.

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