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World Pride timed to open the floodgates for gay tourism in Toronto

People protested the estimated $18 billion Brazil spent on the World Cup that's playing out right now. It's a common refrain, bread not circuses, lobbed at most cities looking to host big global blowouts with varying levels of justification.

You can argue about how much it should cost, and how much it does cost, and what the money's spent on, but one of the things these nations and cities are buying is recognition and credibility. 

Before the war that burned it into all our minds, many people would only have heard of Sarajevo, say, because of its winter Olympics. Another more recent winter Olympics finally snatched a city out from under a shroud and taught the world to call it Torino. It was an expensive rebranding (estimated cost: $4.1 billion), but it put the northern Italian city on the sport and tourism map.

But what if you could do something like that, maybe in a more targeted fashion but nonetheless global, without the billions? What if you could focus on just one aspect of the popular consciousness, an international niche that you could wave a flag in front of to let them know you're here, that you're a big deal, and that you're a welcoming, accommodating, safe place?

You could call it World Pride, invite the world's second sexiest people (Olympic Villagers probably have to retain the top spot), say, two million of them, and have a party.

Sounds like fun.

And of course Toronto's doing just that for the next 10 days as it hosts the fourth World Pride, kicking off on June 20, the first time it's been in North America. 

But the really big deal may be what comes after.

Creating a legacy after World Pride

With a newly re-elected lesbian premier and Ontario having just celebrated the 11th  anniversary of same-sex marriage, Toronto is an obviously gay-friendly place; one of the best in the world, in fact. But when people think gay, they still think San Francisco, New York, South Beach. 

Kevin Beaulieu, head of World Pride, hopes that will now start to change, and that not only will people begin to think “gay” when they think of Toronto, but that World Pride itself will be able to date the beginning of its true global significance from Toronto 2014.

“At some point there will be a tipping point,” Beaulieu says of World Pride, which is administered by an international organization called Interpride. “When it's achieved broad recognition around the world. It's been building and we hope that Toronto is remembered as the place where that happened.”

The first three World Prides were hosted in Rome, Jerusalem and London, respectively. Pope John Paul II called it an affront to Catholics and condemned it in 2000, turning much of the popular tide, and in 2006 in Jerusalem, the parade was cancelled because there wasn't enough security to protect marchers from yet more religious threat. Nothing too much happened in London, except that it got rather swallowed by the 2012 Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee, which were happening simultaneously.

“We think Toronto is the place for it really to develop an identity, a brand, an awareness,” Beaulieu says.

Despite our often homo-reluctant mayor, and the occasional Pride controversies in the past (mostly surrounding whether a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid could or could not march in any given year's parade), Toronto seems ideally placed to escort World Pride out of obscurity.

But at the same time, World Pride has a lot to offer Toronto in return.

World Pride's mark on Toronto

The most obvious contributions are physical, like the rainbow crosswalks on Church Street, just painted and intended to be a permanent addition to the Village. At a time when other cities are having their traditionally gay neighbourhoods integrated through a form of Richard Florida natural selection, with the West Village giving way to Chelsea giving way to nothing in particular, and even the Castro turning into just another lovely San Francisco quarter, the fact that Toronto is doubling down on the Village, adding street signs several years ago, and now laying out the rainbow carpet makes it clear that the city still values its multiplicity, and hasn't turned into a melting pot quite yet.

According to Beaulieu, there are also roughly a dozen permanent murals going up, painted by local artists, illustrating “the history and diversity of LGBT Toronto.”

But that's just the icing, according to Beaulieu.

“Really, the legacy of World Pride is more social, cultural legacy than a physical one,” he says. “It doesn't come with the demands of something like the PanAm or the Olympics, where structures have to be built. This is a large gathering of people, but it doesn't have the same infrastructural needs.”

Pride has been recognized by the city as one of its major annual events, but as a result of World Pride, bridges are being built between it and the city's other major events and institutions that, Beaulieu hopes, will far outlast these next 10 days.

“Part of how we built World Pride is to partner with other cultural organizations, museums, galleries, other festivals, to give us that infrastructure, that social, cultural, physical infrastructure that allows us to mount an event without having to build everything from scratch,” Beaulieu says.

Enhancing tourist attraction during World Pride and beyond

The Gardiner Museum has a show up called Camp Fires with some “queer baroque” ceramics, OCAD U is putting on Generations of Queer, a storytelling event with Robert Flack, John Greyson, Elisha Lim and Kiley May. There's a photo exhibition of binational same-sex couples sponsored by the Royal Bank at the Elgin and Winter Gardens... the list goes on, to include the YMCA, the Toronto Public Library, the AGO, the Ryerson Image Centre, the TTC, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, U of T, the Bata Shoe Museum, and on and on. 

In total, Beaulieu estimates there will be 560 days' worth of programming offered in tandem with World Pride by 17 partner organizations. Toronto has been queer-friendly for some time, but never so explicitly, and as far as Beaulieu's concerned, the extent of these partnerships will help to build a more universal, city-wide and cross-cultural sort of Pride in years to come, both for Torontonians, and tourists.

And tourists are a big deal. The value of the travel and tourism sector worldwide is $7 trillion annually, of which Canada at the moment gets a pathetically small amount. Toronto itself has stumbled over and over again in trying to sell itself to the world. We're too close to New York to be able to sell the big city cultural angle effectively outside a certain (quite small) radius, and too far from the wilderness to get much leverage there, either. 

But Toronto is really gay. Supergay. Christopher Street in New York is mostly history. But the Village is happening now. According to numbers presented at the World Travel Market in London in November, the value of LGBT tourism will crack $200 billion for the first time this year, and as a result of the exposure of Toronto to the international gay communities that World Pride will provide, Toronto stands to get increasing chunks of that in coming years.

This year's blow out is also radically expanding the amount of urban geography devoted to the gays.

“We've been concerned about loss of space over time,” Beaulieu says. “A lot of our venues turn parking lots into party spots, and as those get developed, over time well need to find new spaces, and World Pride has allowed us to expand into Yonge Dundas Square, Allen Gardens and Nathan Philips Square.”

The route for the parade this year, which starts at 1 p.m. on June 29, begins at Church and Bloor, and ends at Yonge Dundas Square.

According to the city planning department, Toronto is already well laid out for events like World Pride.

“The ability to host large festivals stems in part from the adaptability of public space,” says Gregg Lintern, the director of community planning for Toronto and East York, citing Nathan Philips, Yonge Dundas Square and the planned Festival Plaza at Exhibition Place. He says events like World Pride help diversify the economy, and provide material for the planning department's efforts to continue widening sidewalks and improving transit and other urban infrastructure. If having these things actually brings money into the city, it becomes easier to get budget-conscious councillors to sign on.

Speaking of budgets, the city is getting all this for a cash contribution of $160,000, against a total budget of $4.5 million provided by sponsors and other levels of government. That's a pretty good deal.

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development News Editor. 
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