MONTREAL (Reuters) - Massimo Lecas, co-owner of Buonanotte, an upscale Italian supper club in downtown Montreal, put in the year’s biggest meat and fish order last week, as he always does ahead of the Grand Prix.
Lecas needs rib-eye steaks, veal chops and lobster to load three massive barbecue grills set up in the street for the Formula One event and the glitzy three-day party it inspires. That one weekend brings in as much revenue as the downtown venue makes in January and February combined.
But Lecas and others who depend on tourism worry that a sometimes violent student strike will hurt business during the Grand Prix, and the event-focused tourism season it kicks into high gear.
“It’s kind of scary to know that this weekend represents the livelihood of a lot of restaurants out there,” Lecas said in the restaurant, a tony spot where diners watch for celebrities. “People will salvage their year based on this weekend alone.”
The strike, which began in mid-February after the provincial government announced plans to raise tuition fees, threatens the tourism sector in Montreal, the biggest city in Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec.
Grand Prix organizers said they have sold thousands fewer tickets this year, though they would not share precise figures, and they blamed the conflict. Some 300,000 people attended last year, according to Tourism Montreal.
Michel Leblanc, chief executive of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, said some hotels saw bookings fall 25 percent compared with last year in the second half of May, despite strong bookings in earlier months. He also blamed the protests, which attracted global media attention last month.
“Clearly those images that were put on the screens had an impact,” he said. “Tourists have choices.”
Leblanc, who described tourism as the city’s fourth most important industry, conceded that the European debt crisis may be responsible for part of the decline. But he was not the only official who linked soft bookings to the strike.
The Hotel Association of Greater Montreal, which represents 77 area hotels, recently revised downwards its May estimate and June forecast for room revenues by 9 percent and 8 percent respectively.
The protests are hurting business, said Bill Brown, the association’s executive vice president. He said declines have been particularly steep downtown, where nightly marches are concentrated, and that hoteliers are anxious for a settlement.
“We sit back with bated breath, hoping that this will happen, something will happen very soon. Because otherwise, it can turn into a long-term problem.”
A packed calendar of festivals and events drives the Montreal tourism industry, especially in the summer. The Major International Events Network lists 26 events, including the Montreal International Jazz Festival in June and July, and comedy festival Just For Laughs in July.
The metropolis of 3.8 million attracts 8 million visitors a year, 44 percent of them from outside Canada. Much of its allure stems from its European flavor, much-praised art scene and a legal drinking age of 18, compared with 21 in the United States.
Tourism officials say the Grand Prix alone contributes about C$90 million ($86 million) to the city’s economy, mostly from visitors.
Many of the student protests have been peaceful, but some demonstrators have clashed with police in the streets and in one instance set off smoke bombs that briefly halted the city’s entire subway network. There have been few serious injuries.
On Thursday, negotiations between student leaders and the provincial government broke down again, scuttling hopes for a quick settlement.
More than a third of Quebec college and university students have been striking against the proposed move, which under one of the government’s latest offers would raise annual tuition fees by C$1778 over seven years to around C$3,900.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of militant student group CLASSE, said the impasse leaves students no choice but to return to the streets. He said the group would be visible at tourist events, but would not try to shut them down.
“We’re going to use various tourist events to continue to be seen, and so that our demands continue to be heard,” he said. “At the same time, our aim will never be to disrupt or prevent people from taking part in these events.”
Leblanc at the Board of Trade argued that the city needs to start planning now for publicity campaigns it will need once the protests are over.
But he was sure Montreal’s reputation would recover, and noted that tourists returned to Paris after riots erupted across its suburbs in 2005, and to London after looting and riots swept through it and other British cities last year.
In recent weeks demonstrators, including hundreds of robed Montreal lawyers, have also taken to the streets to target a new anti-protest law, which requires advance notice of demonstrations and sets out stiff fines for those who disobey. The law inspired “casserole” protests, a twist on a South American tactic where demonstrators bang pots and pans.
Strolling in Old Montreal, Swedish backpacker Amanda Wessne, 20, said she had not been tempted to cancel her long-planned trip because of the conflict, and the casserole protests she had seen had not made her change her mind.
“I like it, it’s artistic,” Wessne said, noting that it seemed like a good way to protest peacefully. “It’s also enjoyable, and I think it seems to create a community.”
But the beautiful weather was not enough to tempt a single customer to a cluster of colorful, flower-draped horse-drawn carriages on the district’s cobblestone streets near the edge of the St Lawrence River.
Denis Murray, who has worked with the horses for 17 years, said business is about average so far this year - usually it picks up in June. But he also hopes the protests stop soon, before they do hurt business.
“The protesters have drums and saucepans and the noise of it all gets on a horse’s nerves,” he said.
($1 = $1.04 Canadian)
Editing by Janet Guttsman and Eric Walsh