'Anne of Green Gables' boosts Canadian island

A fictional red-headed orphan, whose adventures were penned a century ago, is proving a tourist boon to a corner of Canada, even drawing the attentions of Prince William's new bride, Catherine.

"Anne of Green Gables", the Canadian novel by author Lucy Maud Montgomery, has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1908.

Over the years, the heroine Anne has been brought to life in musicals, museums and street theater on eastern Prince Edward Island, which provides the backdrop for the adventures of the young chatterbox, whose lively imagination gets her into all kinds of trouble.

Montgomery is said to have drawn on her childhood experiences in the smallest of the Canadian provinces to describe Anne's life after she is adopted from an orphanage in Nova Scotia to help on a Prince Edward farm.

Now, the sites mentioned in the book about the girl with red braided pigtails have become a major tourist draw, pumping millions of dollars into the island's struggling economy.

"Many people think she was a real person," said Chantelle Macdonald, who once played Anne in shows on the island. "It's difficult to tell them this person did not really exist. They sometimes confuse Anne with the author."

The most famous recent visitor was Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine, who is reportedly a big fan. She visited the island with her husband Prince William in July as part of their hugely successful tour of Canada.

One in four visitors to Prince Edward Island takes in at least one Anne attraction, such as the recreated fictional town of Avonlea, the site of Montgomery's childhood home or the Anne of Green Gables gift shop on the main street of the provincial capital Charlottetown.

After farming and fishing, tourism is the island's third-largest industry and Anne-related spending accounted for nearly one-third of the island's $370 million in tourism revenue in 2010 - up dramatically from years past.

- Japanese "Anne" fan clubs -

Anne is so popular worldwide that staff at the Cavendish National Historic Site - which includes Montgomery's cousin's farmhouse that inspired Green Gables and landscapes familiar to her readers such as the Haunted Wood Trail and Lovers' Lane - have a hard time convincing visitors she is a fictional character.

The book and its sequels have been translated into some 40 languages.

And in Japan, where "Anne of Green Gables" has been on the school curriculum since 1952, the heroine is widely adored. There are Japanese "Anne" fan clubs, an "Anne" academy and even a nursing school named after her.

Japanese are the third largest contingent of visitors here, after Canadians and Americans, and some even travel to PEI to get married at Green Gables.

Macdonald suggests their enthusiasm for all things Anne may have helped propel her popularity elsewhere.

"In Italy, only five of the books were translated. But in the 1980s, everyone watched the Japanese animated version of 'Anne of Green Gables' on television," said Rosanna Gatti, who was visiting from Italy with her family.

Indeed, Anne was cast in several television series and movies, including "Road to Avonlea" in the 1990s.

People are drawn to the young heroine Anne Shirley because of her youthfulness, her determination, her independence, and her imagination, Macdonald commented.

Prince Edward Island still echoes the charms of early 20th century Canada depicted in the books when villagers traveled in horse-drawn carts, wrote long letters, wore long dresses, and where a cow running amok in the garden accounted for action.

But the ultimate confirmation of her universal appeal came from Sarah Khan, a young Muslim woman visiting the site with two friends, all three sporting hijabs.

"Sometimes people in the street ask, 'Are you forced to wear (a veil)? Why do you wear it?' I say, no, it is my decision and then I feel like Anne: she was coming from outside and had problems to be accepted too," Khan said.