Update: March 11, 2009 - Good news! The fireworks have been rescheduled! See this recent blog entry for more details.
Yesterday evening there was gossip circulating around the Vancouver travel forums, and sadly, this morning's newspapers confirmed the fact: after 18 years, Vancouver will no longer be hosting its major summer fireworks event, the Celebration of Light.
It turns out that the annual international fireworks competition was $400,000 short of the $1,500,000 needed in sponsorship funding. As a result, the city's without its most popular event of the year for both 2009 and possibly 2010.
Formerly the Benson & Hedges Symphony of Fire, when tobacco advertisements went out of fashion - "a cigarette company funding a family event? *gasp* how could they?!" - the popular festival had to find a new ethically-responsible corporate sponsor to appease the Vancouver public. Time was running out to find new sponsorship, but HSBC came along and took over where Benson & Hedges left off. A name change also occurred and the Symphony of Fire became the HSBC Celebration of Light. With an international bank in place of a tobacco corporation, the public was at ease and so continued the summer tradition.
On the last Wednesday and Saturday of July and the first Wednesday and Saturday of August, three participating countries would compete for the best fireworks display. The fireworks started at 10pm and would last for about half an hour. What made the displays unique was that they were synchronized to music. Each night would be a different country's display and on the fourth and final night of the festival, it would be the grand finale and the announcement of the winning team.
The fireworks would be set up on a barge floating out in English Bay. The accompanying music would be broadcast on local radio and blasted out to the beach. Hundreds of thousands of people - tourists and locals alike - would gather along English Bay, Kits Beach, the various stretches of seawall, and would wait for hours until 10pm when fireworks display would begin. Nearby apartment dwellers hosted fireworks parties for their friends - their balconies filled to capacity in anticipation of the spectacle. The bay would be loaded with hundreds of pleasure boats and cruise ships - all there to witness the special event. As you can imagine, the atmosphere was something else.
So when I first heard about the news of the cancellation, my reaction was initially that of disappointment. I personally think it's unfortunate that Vancouver's losing its largest public event. The fireworks were truly a special event situated at one of the most scenic locations in the city during the most beautiful time of the year. It brought immense business to the city, particularly to the hotels, restaurants, and local businesses. It also brought great pleasure to the thousands of people in Greater Vancouver who looked forward to it every year.
But while many are grieving the loss of the event, there are equally many locals celebrating the festival's demise. It's easy to write off the complaints as NIMBYism at its finest, but perhaps the event was getting too big (and out of control) for its own good.
Many who live in the West End or around Kitsilano would come to loathe the annual gathering that would trash their neighbourhoods and turn the beaches into public dumping grounds. For those who required to drive downtown, the inconvenience of street closures was frustrating, especially the event's aftermath: traffic congestion of epically nightmarish proportions. The mass exodus of 100,000 people made for insanity for the city's transit infrastructure. Even on the water, with the greater amount of nautical novices operating in the dark, boating accidents became a reality.
Many would blame teenagers and youth coming in from the local suburbs for using the event as an excuse to get obnoxiously drunk in public, often resulting in mischief, vandalism and public violence. Families with young children would feel uncomfortable with the swearing, public urinating, and total debauchery of the drunken idiots. One year, several stabbings took place.
And on the night of the fireworks, the Vancouver Police Department would make their announcements in the media about their zero tolerance for those found with alcohol in public. One year in an attempt to prevent public drunkenness, they went a step too far and confiscated anyone carrying alcohol on the Vancouver-bound Skytrains regardless of whether they were actually on their way to the fireworks or not. And let's not forget the true ending of the night with the police helicopters shining spotlights down on the crowds as they disperse through the downtown streets.
Vancouver is known locally as the "No Fun City" for reasons such as these. So while it's a shame, it's also good riddance.
And on that note, here are some photos I took at the Celebration of Light in the summer of 2005. I highly encourage you to click on each photo as its full size really gives you a sense of the atmosphere.