Efforts to make Nanaimo more of a tourist destination continue, but the city is still dealing with issues that deter would-be visitors.
Closed stores on weekends and holidays, limited hours of museums in the off-season - when many tourists are still looking to find attractions in the city - the lack of signage pointing out places of interest and the fact that there are still no major tourist destinations being highlighted in Nanaimo, continue to raise the ire of visitors and locals alike.
As well, the fact that many businesses downtown and across the city don't accept American Express credit cards, one of the major means of payment by many of the American tourists who come to the city by cruise ships or other means, is also seen as an impediment to encouraging visitors to come to Nanaimo.
Corry Hostetter, general manager of the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association, acknowledged the city is still facing issues related to attracting tourism and requires more opportunities to excite visitors and encourage them to stay.
She said the more tourists that come here, the more stores will stay open to accommodate them and the more visitor-friendly museums and art galleries will be in regard to better opening hours.
"We have all the same things that many communities on Vancouver Island have, including beaches and forests, but we don't have anything unique like (Victoria's) Butchart Gardens to attract many of them here," Hostetter said.
"Work is under way to change that, including the development of Newcastle Island as a major tourist attraction for the city. We're confident that Nanaimo's downtown is emerging as a destination for local people and visitors and the increasing foot traffic downtown is evidence of that."
One of the problems identified downtown is the difficulty in locating the popular Vancouver Island Military Museum, which is located on an out-of-the way hill directly behind downtown's Vancouver Island Conference Centre where the Nanaimo District was located before it moved to the conference centre.
The site, which has virtually no signage to show the way, also contains an old train locomotive and an old miner's cottage left over from Nanaimo's coal mining history in the adjacent Piper Park.
Military museum spokesman Pat Murphy said the museum, which has only occupied the site for approximately one year, is always looking for ways to help visitors find the location.
The non-profit organization that runs the museum has spent a considerable amount of money on brochures, maps and on its website in efforts to help people with directions.
Murphy said the museum will be holding meetings with officials from the City of Nanaimo next week on a number of issues, and installing better signage is expected to be discussed.
"Aside from hanging balloons above the museum with arrows pointing down, I'm not sure what more we can do," he said.
He said the museum is open six days a week and on Sundays when cruise ships are visiting, as well as by request.
Richard Harding, director of the city's parks, recreation and culture department, said there has been discussions in the past about moving the old locomotive engine to a more central site in the city, but no action has been taken to date.
He said the miner's cottage in Piper Park is being utilized by the nearby Nanaimo District Museum as part of its educational programs.
Harding said the PRCD and other city departments are progressively moving forward to make Nanaimo more amenable to visitors, including expanding the program at the historic downtown Bastion during the tourist season and maintaining the city's many popular parks and green spaces for use by visitors and locals alike.
Odai Sirri, chairman of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, said it's not surprise that many smaller businesses downtown and across the city don't accept American Express credit cards.
He said the major problem is the fees that American Express charges companies for using its services, which are significantly higher than VISA and MasterCard.
Sirri said profit margins for many businesses in the city are already tight, so it's a "real challenge" for them to absorb the extra financial burden of accepting American Express.
"We've successfully negotiated for lower fees for our members from VISA and MasterCard, but it has always been much tougher dealing with American Express," he said.
As for extended hours for Nanaimo businesses through the weekends to accommodate both tourists and local people, Sirri said the numbers of customers at this time, even in the busier tourist months, are not much of an incentive even with the occasional flood of tourists who come on cruise ships or other means.
"The city has to address the issue of residential density downtown before many businesses there can justify staying open on Sundays, even with more tourists," he said.
"I expect he downtown core needs to see a massive injection of new life and residences before that would happen."
Sirri said the city needs to be more aggressive with its destination development before a lot of these challenges can be met.
He said Nanaimo needs at least one of two major attractions to draw tourists here.
"Unless something is done so that visitors can come here and see something unique and special, these issues will continue to be a major concern here," Sirri said.
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