Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024
Then and Now: Visitors to Ontario Parks

This blog post comes from Anne Craig, Senior Marketing Specialist.

It’s the summer of 1963. Lester B. Pearson has just been elected Prime Minister of Canada and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” is at the top of the CHUM list.

Ontario is enjoying a year of economic growth, taking advantage of a booming manufacturing sector. One of the most popular summer vacations is camping in a provincial park.

But campers were very different in 1963 than they are today. Let’s take a look at some of the differences between what campers were like in 1963 and today.

The discovery

Large sheet of paper with camping statistics.

Recently, when Ontario Parks staff were cleaning out files at the Peterborough office, they discovered a spreadsheet describing visits to the park in 1963.

What was a spreadsheet like in 1963, before personal computers and Excel files? It is a single sheet of paper, two meters by two meters, carefully lined with columns and rows.

The number of visitors from each region of Ontario, other provinces, states and abroad is carefully handwritten for each park. The numbers are subtotaled by category and region, with a final grand total at the bottom.

Closeup of statistical information

Remember, the pocket calculator was not available until the 1970s. At best, these numbers were added on an adding machine, but perhaps they were added by hand. Just imagine!

The 1963 park system

1963 Parks PassThe 1963 park system was a little different than today. In 1963, there were 69 campground parks, compared to just over 100 today. Many of today’s favorites were there in 1963: Rondeau, Pinery, Balsam Lake, Esker Lakes, Killarney and Rushing River, to name a few.

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Several have undergone a change of identity. Sibley is now called Sleeping Giant, Lake Remi is René Brunelle and Black Lake is Lake Sharbot.

Some parks are no longer part of the Ontario parks system. Holiday Beach joined the Essex Region Conservation Authority and Clay Creek became part of the St. Clair Parkway.

Are the campers still coming from the same places?

Black and white camping imageOastler Lake Provincial Park in 1965

In 1963, 29% of campers came from the United States. Today, just over 3% of campers are Americans.

What changed? In 1963, the border between Ontario and the United States was wide open. You could actually cross without a passport! Air travel was an expensive luxury and road trips were the norm during summer vacations. In 2018, travelers have many more options for where to spend their vacation.

In 1963, foreign visitors were a rarity in Ontario parks. Just over 0.25% of campers came from outside Canada or the United States. Today, international campers are still relatively rare, but they make up almost 1% of campers. Algonquin is a popular destination for visitors from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Population migration in Ontario

Black and white camping photoPresqu’ile Provincial Park in 1965

In 1963, 24% of campers came from an area they called the “Metro,” which we would now consider the GTA, or Metropolitan Toronto Area. In 2016, just over 9% of campers came from the GTA.

camping comic

So what’s up? In 1963, Toronto was a medium-sized city, not the center of a large urban concentration like today. Now, Torontonians have to work harder to get out of the big city and into the parks.

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Additionally, the makeup of Toronto has changed. New Canadians have driven much of the area’s growth. Many new Canadians have not had the experience of camping as children and are less likely to visit parks as adults. Ontario Parks is working to reverse this trend through programs like Learn to Camp.

Ontarians also traveled further in 1963. Torontonians visited northern parks and northerners visited southern parks in large numbers. Nowadays, we don’t travel as far to camp and our camping vacations are shorter.

What is happening? One theory is that modern families feel more pressed for time. Children today have activities scheduled during the summer and people feel like they can’t leave their daily lives for so long.

What hasn’t changed?

Black and white photography of campers walking.Killbear Provincial Park in 1965

Ontarians still care deeply about their parks and often choose them as vacation destinations.

Parks staff still care about measuring who visits the parks and ensuring that all Ontarians take advantage of our incredible park system.