OTTAWA - The federal government is planning to spend almost $50 million to create a new underground welcome centre for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Parliament Hill each year.
But it's simultaneously cutting the budget for guided tours, ensuring some 20,000 fewer visitors will actually get a peek inside the majestic buildings housing the seat of Canada's national government.
As of Saturday — one day before the annual Canada Day bash on the Hill — there'll be no more evening tours of the Centre Block, the heart of Canada's democracy.
Tours during the peak summer months will end three hours earlier, running daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EDT. They'll shut down even earlier — at 3:20 p.m. — starting Sept. 4.
"Budgetary restraint measures mean that, effective June 30, late tours will no longer be available," confirmed Cynthia Cusinato, associate director of corporate communications for the Library of Parliament, which is responsible for the tours.
About 355,000 visitors take the tours each year, about 20,000 of them in the evenings, according to Cusinato.
She said it's too soon to say how much money will be saved by eliminating the late tours as the library's contribution to the government-wide spending restraint program is still being finalized.
When Parliament is not sitting — and it very rarely does over the summer — guided tours are the only way for tourists to get inside the Centre Block, site of the House of Commons, the Senate, the iconic Peace Tower and the breathtaking Library of Parliament.
When Parliament is sitting, visitors can attempt to get tickets to sit in the public or members' galleries overlooking the Commons and the Senate.
Tickets for the tours are limited and handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. Even before the cut to the tour schedule, thousands of disappointed tourists have been turned away each year.
A 2003 Ekos Research survey suggested almost 50 per cent of visitors hoping to take the tour never made it to the head of the line for the scarce tickets.
Cusinato said that's likely still true today.
"I think that still stands," she said. "It would be fair to say demand definitely exceeds our capacity."
A few years ago, the senior official in charge of the tours advised visitors that evening tours were their best bet for getting in to see the historic building during the jam-packed summer months.
"You have significantly greater chances if you decide to come later in the day," Benoit Morin told The Canadian Press in 2007.
However, Cusinato said the eventual construction of the new visitors' welcome centre should help push a larger volume of visitors through security screening, the bottle neck that limits the numbers allowed in for tours at the moment.
The federal government issued a request for proposals this week, inviting bids to design and construct the first phase of a three-story subterranean centre.
Construction of the first phase is estimated to cost $48.9 million and is to be completed by June 2017, in time for the reopening of a refurbished West Block, which will be used as a temporary legislative building until 2025 while Centre Block undergoes renovations.
It's all part of a massive rehabilitation project for the parliamentary precinct.
The centre is to ultimately include educational and interpretive elements, as well as security screening, connecting tunnels between the Centre, West and East Blocks and facilities for shipping and receiving.
"The reality is we're committed to welcoming visitors to Canada's Parliament and I think this really is a big step towards improving how we can enhance the visitor experience, on a year-round basis," said Cusinato.
"We have to continually look at how we're going to continue to be able to offer visitors an experience, an open-door opportunity to come and view democracy in action."