Troubled waters for tall ships festivals

A conflict between two old North American ports - Quebec City and Boston - over a tall-ships gathering planned for summer 1984 is causing some choppiness in US-French Canadian relations.

The capital of Quebec is complaining that a Boston promoter is ''stacking the deck'' by planning a tall-ships gathering a year from this June for his city. Quebec City is expecting the same ships a few days later. Planners in the Canadian port are worried that much of the tourist revenue they hope to reap from the event - tied to the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Quebec by French explorer Jacques Cartier - will be lost if Boston is allowed to divert the tall ships into its harbor first.

The Quebec organization, Corporation 1534-1984, had agreed with the American Sailing Training Association that the ships would start their voyage in Saint Malo, France, competing in races along the way. They would pass by the Canary Islands, Bermuda, and Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, ending in Quebec City on June 30.

But last year, Henry Dormitzer, a Boston tall-ships promoter and restorer, began to send invitations to the ships to stop in Boston before reaching Quebec. The Canadian organizers protested against this unilateral decision, arguing it broke the earlier agreement between the Canadian and US organizations. The American Sailing Training Association joined Corporation 1534-1984 in its disapproval and said it didn't want to get involved in any way with the Boston initiative.

French-Canadian reaction to Mr. Dormitzer's move was swift. ''A deplorable, selfish decision,'' said the Quebec newspaper Le Soleil. ''It's a shame Boston won't be sanctioned with regard to international agreements,'' said Michel Langlois, in charge of tall-ships affairs at the Corporation 1534-1984.

Although it's a tradition for Quebeckers to celebrate the discovery of their province, next year will be special, organizers say. During eight weeks the city will rediscover some of its older, lost ways: downtown streets will fill with singers and musicians, and the banks of the St. Lawrence River will come alive at night with an atmosphere much like that found in Mediterranean ports on summer evenings. But the biggest crowds are expected to welcome the tall ships and other sailing vessels coming from 15 countries.

The Quebec press has recently reflected, in televised reports and several sharp articles, the city's anger over the Boston initiative. The reports note the city's concern that tourists may not be as numerous as in the past, if a US tall-ships gathering takes place a few days before Quebec's festivities. A drop in the summer tourist trade, they say, could prove a hard blow to the old commerical center, already suffering from the loss of stores to suburban shopping malls. New tourist-oriented shops are slowly beginning to open, but the comeback is fragile, they say.

Quebeckers emphasize that most of the tourists attracted to tall-ships shows are American. When a similar event occurred in Boston in 1980, 2 million people were present on Boston Harbor. These figures lead French-Canadians to conclude that tourists will prefer going to Boston in 1984. Why should tourists care, they ask, if the Boston assembly does not receive official approval?

For his part, Mr. Dormitzer dismisses the Quebeckers fears, contending that the Boston gathering will actually bring more ships than usual to Quebec City.

The Canadians point out that another ship gathering is planned in New York for spring 1986. President Reagan plans to view the ships there. Le Soleil has speculated that people might get tired of such gatherings if they become challenges between cities rather than simply an effort to entertain the public.

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