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Planning a summer trip to Quebec's Iles-de-la-Madeleine? You'll have to pay up.

An ATV is driven on a beach on the Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Que., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Nigel Quinn/The Canadian Press) An ATV is driven on a beach on the Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Que., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Nigel Quinn/The Canadian Press)

Tens of thousands of visitors flock to Quebec's Îles-de-la-Madeleine every summer to behold its cliff-framed seascapes and sandy beaches. But starting next month, those island sojourns will come with an added cost.

The small archipelago northeast of Prince Edward Island is introducing a $30 visitor fee to raise funds for tourist infrastructure, environmental protection and waste management. Called the Passe Archipel, the new fee will be mandatory for domestic and international travellers who stay on the islands for more than 24 hours between May 1 and Oct. 14. Individuals who fail to comply will risk a $1,000 fine.

Îles-de-la-Madeleine Mayor Antonin Valiquette says the fee is necessary because tourists are burdening local services and straining existing municipal revenue. The islands have a population of roughly 13,000 but welcomed about five times that many visitors between May and October 2023, according to the local tourism board.

"If you think the Îles-de-la-Madeleine are beautiful, are magnificent, and that's why you come to see them, then we have to ask you to contribute a little to preserving this quality of life and this quality of tourist destination," Valiquette said in an interview Wednesday.

Valiquette insists the pass does not constitute a barrier to accessing or leaving the islands, but the fee nevertheless has some islanders concerned it will infringe on the freedom of Quebecers and other Canadians to travel within their own country.

"I think it's outrageous to ask someone to identify themselves in order to get out of their own town," local hotel owner Chanie Thériault said Wednesday. She was one of several people who voiced opposition to the visitor fee during a tense April 9 local government meeting during which elected officials passed the bylaws that established it.

In an interview, Thériault said she considers the fee especially unfair because it will charge mainland Quebecers for using public resources partially financed by the provincial government, such as roads. "So we end up charging Quebecers for visiting their own infrastructure, which they pay for with their own taxes," she said.

Suzie Leblanc, a former Îles-de-la-Madeleine town councillor, said she sympathizes with the municipality's budgetary challenges but is disturbed by the implications of the Passe Archipel rules for citizens' mobility. "There really is an obstacle to my freedom of movement," she said. "It's the first time in my life that this is happening to me and I find it nonsensical."

Valiquette, however, likened the visitor fee to the $50.25 toll car drivers must pay to cross the Confederation Bridge between New Brunswick and P.E.I. If Confederation Bridge officials introduced a toll exemption for Îles-de-la-Madeleine residents transiting through P.E.I., he said, "I don't think there would be many who wouldn't show their driver's licence, or their ID or their proof of residence rather than pay $50. So it's exactly the same principle here."

He argued that the Passe Archipel is less intrusive for islanders than alternative fundraising strategies, such as parking fees at local beaches. And fees for accommodation would be difficult to levy, he said, because many of the islands' tourist lodgings are single-family home rentals, not hotels.

The Passe Archipel will be payable through a forthcoming online platform and certified with a QR code visitors will receive by email. An official will validate visitors' codes upon their departure by ferry or plane. Island residents are exempt from the Passe Archipel but will have to furnish proof of residence when they leave the islands to avoid the fee, which only applies to travellers who are at least 13 years old, and is capped at $100 for families — up to two adults and five children — travelling together. There's also an exception for second-home owners.

The Passe Archipel isn't the first attempt by a Quebec town to pass infrastructure costs on to tourists. Last year, a Quebec Superior Court judge struck down an effort by the Gaspé Peninsula town of Percé to make companies charge visitors an extra $1 on purchases of more than $20, saying the municipality overstepped its powers by compelling the local businesses to apply the fee. Percé has appealed the ruling.

Dominic Lapointe, a professor of urban studies and tourism at the Université du Québec à Montréal, says popular destinations often struggle with what he called an "imbalance" between tourism and the capacity of municipal resources. The Passe Archipel model is a first in Quebec, he said, but similar fees exist elsewhere in the world. The City of Venice launched a pilot program Thursday that charges day-trippers a five euro fee.

Lapointe said in an interview the Îles-de-la-Madeleine fee manages to "spare residents while maintaining a very high level of accessibility to public facilities." Direct fees on local services create "a much greater sense of dispossession for the local population," he said.

Lapointe doubts the islands' visitor fee will lead to fewer tourists. Michel Bonato, general manager of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine tourism board, said his office has not observed a recent drop in bookings.

Thériault worries the Passe Archipel model could spread. "It sets a dangerous precedent for other municipalities in Quebec," she asserted. "So if it's accepted here, why would each city hesitate to establish the same measures?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2024. Top Stories

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