Skip to content

Local historical tours see rise in popularity

Jay Wilson said people have shown an interest in discovering tourism in their own backyard
Jay Wilson with tour members during his Scandal on the Speed River Tour on Tuesday where tickets are subsidized 50 percent through a federal grant. Supplied photo

A time of crisis is a time for reflection, says local storyteller Jay Wilson, who has seen an increase in interest in his local tours during the pandemic. 

Many know Wilson from JayWalking Guelph, a unique storytelling tour where Wilson uses historic Guelph sites as preexisting sets for a theatrical storytelling experience outdoors that uses nature’s lights and sounds to organically tell a story in the location it originally took place. 

“People are wanting to do something. People are wanting to get out. There seems to be a large interest in experiencing tourism in your own backyard and that’s definitely what I’m seeing happen,” said Wilson. 

“People are realizing they can’t go away so ‘What can I do at home?’”

When his tours shut down in May as a result of the pandemic, he completely revamped his business by researching, changing tour scripts and adding a new tour called Gwelf Early Days, a historical tour about John Galt and the Canada Company in addition to his existing Scandal on the Speed River and The Unfortunate Man tour.

When he re-opened in August, local tourism organization Visit Guelph approached him with a federal funding offer through FedDev Ontario. Half his ticket prices on Tuesdays were paid in order to increases sales and boost local tourism. On Aug. 1, Wilson was able to offer his tours again three days a week for a group of 12 people each day and will do so for 10 consecutive weeks. 

“That is the best relationship that I could hope for. That the city is coming to me saying we like what you do, we want to support you. We think that these walking tours are valuable. And they are because it’s not just about the storytelling, I’m animating the local architecture, I’m taking people through local neighbourhoods,” said Wilson. 

“Many people say to me ‘I’ve never been here before. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never been here before.’ I really feel like I’m helping people discover their own city.” 

After the mayor’s task force encouraged Wilson to apply for a Regional Tourism Organization grant, he received a $1,500 to develop his business online as many businesses improve their online presence during COVID-19. 

Because the pandemic closed his business from May to August, Wilson created an indoor version of his popular The Unfortunate Man tour for theatre production in the winter. 

“I’ve selected a number of pictures that are relevant to the story of The Unfortunate Man. So pictures of all of the people involved in that story, pictures of the buildings, pictures of the jailyard,” said Wilson. 

“Along with those pictures that I will display behind me as I’m telling the story, I will also add sound effects such as the tolling of the bell on Douglas street. And the clopping of horses,” said Wilson who continued to research with the museum and local archive collection.

He said when people understand where they come from and what has happened over the years, they have a greater appreciation for where they are now.

He said the pandemic has allowed people to stop and think about the importance of their city’s history and it’s why he shares a poem called Canadian Recollections by John Galt to tour members to explain the importance of adding something positive to Guelph. 

“I think that was his intention and I think it’s up to us to keep that idea burning. That we come together as a group of people to make this place really special and to make it what we want it to be,” said Wilson. 

“By saying that in words written over 150 years ago, you can see people light up. You can see ‘Yeah, I want to make this a better place.’”