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In an area known for tourism, Lac-Megantic disaster site latest visitor draw

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LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The shocking images of flames ravaging Lac-Megantic have drawn visitors to the small Quebec town, hoping for glimpses of a morbid tourist attraction.

It's a dreary development for a town that long has prided itself on its tourism pull as a picturesque community in a region known for its natural landscapes and centennial architecture.

The derailment that killed dozens of residents and razed the town centre quickly prompted officials, fearing an exodus of tourists and an even deeper hit to the local economy, to sound the alarm.

After anxious tourists fled the area and cancelled bookings in the days after the crash, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche publicly pleaded for their return.

Her appeal seemed to resonate with travellers. In fact, they arrived in such great numbers last weekend that the mayor was forced to revisit her invitation.

"I invited people to visit different areas, different tourist attractions in Lac-Megantic and the region — but I also don't want to create too much disappointment because people are coming to see the site (of the derailment)," she told reporters.

Relatively few people have seen the disaster zone.

News media were only allowed for the first time behind the walls of the security perimeter on Tuesday. Until then, only civil authorities and visiting politicians had entered the site. Otherwise, the view is blocked by a high metal fence lined with black cloth.

That hasn't deterred visitors from coming to show their support for the community, and catch a glimpse of the devastation.

"We're curious, like everyone else," said Marie-Lyne Bertrand, who headed into town last weekend from the nearby campsite where she and her family were staying.

They almost called off their plans to visit the area out of concern over possible oil contamination from the crushed tanker cars, but decided to go ahead after hearing the mayor's call in the news, she said.

"We want to see what happened and offer our sympathies, help bolster the community," she added.

Workers at the regional tourism office have fielded calls from people wanting to check out the wreckage that once held the library and the popular Musi-Cafe bar, said spokeswoman Michele Tardif.

Before disaster struck, Lac-Megantic was one of the province's best-kept secrets, a favourite among those who knew it but which otherwise remained under the radar, Tardif said.

Now, everyone has heard of the town roughly 250 kilometres east of Montreal, she noted.

And while that might offend some residents, it's human nature to want a first-hand look in order to fully grasp the scope of the tragedy, she said.

"We go to New York and go see Ground Zero, right?" she said. "I guess it's the same thing."

Still, it's unclear whether the attention will translate into dollars for the battered community, particularly once the crisis isn't as fresh, she said.

A spate of fundraisers and benefits for those affected by the disaster also keeps the town in the spotlight, but those too will dwindle with time.

Nicolas Charrier, who organizes a world-renowned swimming competition in the town's namesake lake, said it doesn't matter what lures tourist to the area, so long as they come.

Once here, they might discover new attractions that will draw them back for years to come, he said.

"Obviously this will draw curious people, but if it helps the region because they eat in restaurants and stay overnight, it's fine," he said.

Tourism generates about $45 million in annual revenue for the region of roughly 23,000, making it one of the top economic engines after the industrial sector according to the local tourism office.

The broader Eastern Townships area is popular for its 19th-century towns, myriad lakes and rivers that hold endless canoeing and kayaking opportunities, and its rolling hills that offer sweeping sights of the fall foliage.

Fifty kilometres from Lac-Megantic, the region boasts the International Starry Sky Reserve — a spot protected from electrical lighting where people can marvel at the stars.

Without the sky-dimming effects of light pollution, visitors can enjoy a firmament that appears dusted with distant diamonds. Occasionally, they can even spot traces of the Northern Lights.

Now the tragic sight of a scorched downtown core is attracting new visitors.

The sudden influx hasn't escaped the notice of residents, who have been comparing notes on the crowd while grabbing a bite in local restaurants.

Among the more conspicuous visitors were the convoys of bikers whose motorcycles filled the McDonald's parking lot and lined the streets just outside the security perimeter.

"There's a lot of them," much more than the usual tourist traffic, said Herve Hallee.

He said he and his wife had just chatted with a family who came from Quebec City to see the ruins of the town centre.

"You can tell they're not from here because they don't know the streets," he said.

Lise Grenon made a day trip from her home in St-Raymond de Portneuf, about 60 kilometres northwest of Quebec City.

She and a friend stopped at the Ste-Agnes church Saturday to light a candle and add to a growing memorial to the 50 people believed to have been killed in the crash.

Afterward, they went to have lunch in a neighbouring restaurant.

"We came here so that they don't feel alone," Grenon said.

"When someone in your family dies, having people around gives you energy and gives you courage."

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