Third season of Kingston Penitentiary tours wraps up

For almost two centuries, Kingston Penitentiary has been home to some of Canada’s most notorious criminals. But for the last three years, it’s been one of Kingston’s largest tourist draws.

The tours have been organized through a partnership between the city of Kingston, Correctional Service Canada and the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

Tour manager Vinnie Rebelo says the first two years of the penitentiary tours have shown tremendous growth.

“[In] 2016 we had about 56,000 people come through,” Rebelo said. “Last year, about 105,000 people.”

The 2018 season closed October 28, and while the final numbers aren’t known yet, Rebelo predicts another strong year.

“Every day we were open in July and August we were sold out, every single day,” he said. “It’s been fabulous and virtually every single weekend in the spring summer and fall we were sold out as well.”

Craig Hunter and Larissa McKenna toured the penitentiary on the last day, and McKenna says the architecture is what drew her to take a look inside.

“The structure and the architecture, the building, the thickness of the walls it was pretty impressive and how they built it so many years ago.”

For Summer Kuiper it’s the history of the prison that stood out to her.

“Back in 1971 they had the big riot,” Kuiper said, “so I think that really stood out.”

Peterborough resident Devon Leahy says it’s the opportunity to get a glimpse of prison life that sticks with him.

“There was some cells that had stuff that had been left over from the inmates like a Nintendo DS,” Leahy said.  “There was a N-64, and I was surprised that in prison you could still just like have video games.”

Kendra Slater made the trip from Cambridge to take advantage of the prison being open to the public and says it’s the notoriety of some of the prison’s residents that fascinates her.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the reason I wanted to go is because this is where Paul Bernardo had been housed for a long, long, long time,” Slater said.

Half of the money raised from the tours is donated to the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington United Way.

Rebelo says as the number of tourists has increased, so has the money going to the charity.

“In 2016 the United Way got a cheque for about $360,000,” Rebelo said. “Last year they got $1.2 million, and this year again the number will be a substantial cheque again as well.”

The other half of the money is used for destination marketing to promote the city of Kingston to tourists.

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