Motorcycles, tourism and paradoxes of retirement

The faint electronic-sounding whisper barely caught my attention. I glanced up from my gardening. Two helmeted older people—riding the quietest, sleekest, deepest burgundy motorcycle I’d ever seen—went gliding past our front lawn.

The bike stopped at the stop sign and took off, and it was only then I could tell it was gas-powered. But even then it was whisper quiet—a highly sophisticated four cylinder or six I figured.

I compared it to the bike and sidecar I’d seen in town a couple of weeks before. It was a noisy antique contraption, its riders wearing matching gang colours: ragged jackets with big Hell’s Angels patches on the backs.

Since the arrival of the Altanticade motorcycle event there’s been a lot more motorcycle traffic to our little town. Most of these bikes—ridden by aging Baby Boomers—are Harleys or Harley knockoffs, with big V-twin engines and minimal exhaust systems. They’re loud, even when the riders are trying to be quiet.

Welcome to the new age of retirement, in which “do your own thing” is the mantra. So the question becomes, how does a small tourist town accommodate the diversity? Well, it can—and it can’t. The town first has to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to cater to folks who like art galleries, crafts shops and upmarket restaurants, or does it want to cater to people who like stripper bars, fast food, loud entertainment and rebel paraphernalia? Either group can spend a lot of money.

These value choices are extremely important: these choices shape the culture in which we live. For example, our small town has somehow managed to keep big franchise stores out of the community, so you won’t find a Burger King or McDonalds or even a Red Lobster here. The people here seem to care about what fits and what doesn’t.

So why is the town willing to distort its values to accommodate motorcycle tourism? The easy answer would be money. But that’s not the whole story. The answer is numbers. Tourism runs on traffic, and motorcycles bring visitors. And when tourist destinations in town sense that their numbers are dropping, they tend to look to “the low-hanging fruit,” which in this case is motorcycle tourism. But whether that type of tourism best fits their existing businesses or their community’ culture is another issue.

As the Baby Boom generation starts to impose new challenges on national scene these value choices aren’t limited to small town tourism. And these challenges bring more paradoxes. Affluent Boomers want to preserve their wealth, while their less affluent cohorts will be relying on the government and social security cheques. And Boomers of all types will be looking at affordable, high quality retirement locations.

Real estate in some parts of Canada is expensive, which makes the East Coast, with its affordable real estate attractive to potential retirees. But the eastern provinces—especially New Brunswick—are “have-not” provinces that depend on federal transfer payments to remain viable. So if the federal government neutralizes the transfer payments, or decides to disconnect the provinces from a national universal health care system (allowing any province to develop a two-tiered, private-public system), the entire social services picture could change depending on where one retires.

New Brunswick also has a rapidly aging population and a historical problem with outmigration of young people. So one would think that these demographic dynamics are extremely important to policy developers, who might view building affordable and efficient retirement housing, seniors’ health care, social and cultural centres, and attracting young and capable service workers as primary challenges.

But reality check: the current provincial government is forced by necessity to focus on internal cost-reduction and paring back its spending to control its spiralling debt rather than looking at the future. And there’s the rock and the hard place.

Retirees from across Canada and the U.S. are looking at attractive, affordable retirement locations. Many of them will make the leap without a full understanding of the long-term implications. Pretty seaside towns may be quaint, affordable and fun while these retirees are still relatively young but may become less desirable as these newcomers move into old age. But the lack of assisted living facilities and distance from comprehensive medical facilities will pose new challenges. As will living within the financial constraints of a “have-not” province.

Perhaps, for the first time, we’re seeing a three-stage retirement: early retirement in which retirees in good health explore their inner adolescent in seaside towns along the coast, mid-retirement in which they scale back youthful desires and move into affordable condo living, and late retirement in which they tighten up their expenses and look after their fading health.

Geographically speaking, these three phases might suggest living in three different towns, creating a new class of aging nomads. Disconnected from their children, who have moved away from home after college, and thus from their grandchildren, the new retirees are a footloose, go-anywhere group.

And that simply means another new market to exploit. Paradoxes and challenges always bring new opportunities for those who willing to anticipate the future. Retirement, like everything else, isn’t what it used to be.

(On a sadder note, rest in peace Jack Layton.)


  1. Once again, there is a generalization being made that all motorcycles are loud and obnoxious and that people who ride motorcycles are Hell's Angels and prefer "stripper bars, fast food, loud entertainment and rebel paraphernalia". I take offense to your declaration of motorcycle tourism as "low-hanging fruit". My husband and I recently completed a 10 day motorcycle tour of Vermont. We are both nearing our 50th year on this planet. We do not have a whisper quiet motorcycle, but it is also not loud and obnoxious - trust me - I dislike those too!! We chose the motorcycle as our mode of transportation for a few reasons. It is so much cheaper in fuel costs and usage than the car, and we experience so much more on the motorcycle. All the senses are in use - sights, sounds, smells, the feeling of both the sun and the rain - it is just a more vibrant way of travelling. We had 3 rules. No interstates, no chain restaurants and no big box stores. We were welcomed warmly wherever we went, as were all the motorcyclists we passed in our travels. The small, quaint, friendly towns that we frequented for the 10 days seemed not to be damaged by our presence, and I feel like we were able to experience the 'real Vermont'. Why not try to get to know the people who pass through your life and communities, rather than judge them for their mode of transportation?

  2. No. I am not making a generalization that all motorcycles are loud and obnoxious. Quite the contrary. I opened by describing the very opposite kind of bike and bikers.

    By 'low hanging fruit' I was alluding to the easy availability of the Atlanticade tourism event, which had been orphaned after the event parted company with Moncton.

    Atlanticade attracts, by far, more loud bikes than the quieter touring variety, and the prevailing style is very much aging rebel, and I believe the busy traffic in the local bars during the event attests to that particular consumer predisposition.

    What I am discussing in the column is a cultural shift set in motion by the arrival of a large contingent of visitors (on noisy machines) who don't necessarily share the quiet, arts and crafts ambiance of the town. And when I say 'cultural shift set in motion' I mean the initial stages of a creeping shift in the tourism experience of the town.

    Here's a clue: I don't want to get to know a group of people who travel in hoards through my town on ear-splittingly loud machines—of any variety, and this includes the increasing frequency of trucks using 'jake brakes' in town.

    Atlanticade seems to me, as a resident, a bad fit with this community. It has also increased the motorcycle traffic to the town before and after the event, as the riders of these noisy machines begin to see St. Andrews as a biker-friendly destination.

    So, Donna, if you can figure out how to weed out the giant group of noisy bikes and get rid of the real Hell's Angels and other outlaw groups embedded into these events, and leave us with bikers such as yourselves, I'd be the first in line to help you make it come true.

    Otherwise, good riddance to bad rubbish—that is, if St. Andrews wants to retain its trajectory as a quiet retirement town and an all-ages family tourism destination.

    But if St. Andrews wants to become a biker town and all that entails, I suspect more than a few residents (and potential residents) will be voting with their feet.

  3. Thanks Octo. But how can we be sure the new e-riders aren't gang-banger types, too...? (Too obvious, of course.) Could it be that the medium really is the message?

  4. RIP, Jack; a class act.

    "...people who like stripper bars, fast food, loud entertainment and rebel paraphernalia?" Okay, I know you were talking about Myrtle Beach. You can't hurt my feelings. I don't actually live there; I just can't sell my house there and can't afford to live in another one until I do sell. We've been there 21 years, so that qualifies as a whole new phase of retirement: The Entrapped Phase.

    "But reality check: the current provincial government is forced by necessity to focus on internal cost-reduction and paring back its spending to control its spiralling debt rather than looking at the future." Now I'm feeling picked on and paranoid. Are you sure you're writing about Canada and not SC, which has already endorsed Rick Perry?

    Funny Harley tale. Our town was inundated with up to 500,000 Harleys every Memorial Day in what began as Harley week and morphed through Harley Fortnight, to Harley Month. You couldn't hear yourself think when a gaggle of 25 or 30 two-strokers. The police were overwhelmed and the drag on city funds far outweighed the cash they brought. We managed to accidentally kill nine of them in one festive month and the town decided to call a halt.

    They yanked all the vendor permits and slapped a helmet law on the books to discourage them. They sued, so now we have signs that read, "Helmets are suggested."

  5. I am actually laughing out loud. Wow. You've got it far worse than we do! I guess I shouldn't be laughing at killing nine of them... shame on me. But really, helmets are "suggested"?

    But it must be some perfect, cruel symmetry: Harley Summer up here and Harley Winter down there. Talk about entrapment.


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