Tourism operators in northwestern Ontario hope for a bounce-back this summer, but hurdles remain

Tourism operators in northwestern Ontario hope for a bounce-back this summer, but hurdles remain

by Sue Jones
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Northwestern Ontario’s beleaguered remote tourism operators say they’re hoping for a good season after two years of economic devastation brought on by border closures. But many are also hampered by rising costs, delayed provincial recovery funding and vaccine requirements that U.S. customers may be unwilling to follow.

Wayne And Karla Clark

Wayne Clark and wife Karla own Clark’s Resorts and Outposts. He says bookings for this year are good, but the two have borrowed so much money, they may be unable to retire. (Clarksresorts.com)

Northwestern Ontario’s beleaguered remote tourism operators are hopeful for a good season after two years of economic devastation brought on by the closure of the Canada-U.S. border.

But many are hampered by rising costs, delayed provincial recovery funding and vaccine requirements that U.S. customers may not be willing to follow. 

Companies providing wilderness hunting and fishing experiences, often in fly-in or boat-in lodges, rely on American tourists for an estimated 90 to 95 per cent of their business. They’ve spent the past two summers paying high overhead costs on items such as aircraft insurance and heating fuel while generating minimal revenue.

Border openings mean they can look forward to a better year than the previous two, said Gerry Cariou, executive director of Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association.

I had one guy, honestly — and this is the truth — he said, ‘It’s easier to get into heaven right now than it is to get into Canada.’  – Gerry Cariou, Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association

But, he said, Canada’s requirements for those crossing the border — including proof of COVID-19 vaccination, negative COVID-19 tests, and the use of the ArriveCAN app — are a deterrent for an estimated 30 per cent of U.S. customers. 

“I had one guy, honestly — and this is the truth — he said, ‘It’s easier to get into heaven right now than it is to get into Canada,” Cariou said.  

Covid 19 Impact Could Devastate Northwestern Ontario S Outdoor Tourism Business Owners Say Image 2

Gerry Cariou, executive director of the Sunset Country Travel Association, says one person told him it was easier to get to heaven than Canada. He was referring to pandemic mandates that apply to travellers. (Gord Elllis/CBC)

Eric Brown, the owner and president of Totem Lodge, Yellowbird Lodge and Wiley Point Lodge, said the cross-border vaccine mandate has cost him around 75 per cent of his business this year. That’s because the large corporate groups that make up half of his business frequently opt not to come if even a small number of their customers can’t cross the border. 

“Let’s say a busload of 50 guys are going to come from a company or a group, and 10 of them aren’t vaccinated. Then they say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to come,'” he said. “So even though they’ve got 40 guys vaccinated, they’ve made a decision from their company that no, we’re not going to exclude 10 of our best customers.”

Wayne Clark, co-owner of Clark’s Resorts and Outposts in Vermillion Bay, said bookings for 2022 are “pretty darned good,” but he estimated about 40 per cent of his customers are unvaccinated and another 10 per cent simply don’t want to come to Canada because they don’t want to deal with the testing requirements and the government’s ArriveCAN app.

Effective this Friday, the Canadian government is removing the COVID-19 testing requirement for people entering the country, but only if they’ve received at least two shots. 

Ted Putnam, owner of Hawk Lake Lodge east of Kenora, said his clientele is about 15 per cent unvaccinated. 

“They’re starting to cancel once again,” he said. “We’re hoping we’re going to have a good season. But there’s really no more well to go to. … If this doesn’t happen where we can have a successful summer and a successful open, it’s probably going to be the end of many of us.”

Still waiting for tourism recovery funding

Adding to the financial strain, operators say, is a delay in funding through the province’s $100-million Ontario Tourism Recovery Program.

They were told to apply by mid-November last year and to expect a response within eight weeks. 

Six months after launching the program, CBC News reported that none of that money has been distributed to businesses.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Carol Anniuk, co-owner of Young’s Wilderness Camp.

“I kind of put off doing a few things, because I was waiting to hear about that,” she said, adding she was hoping to renovate to create more space for distancing due to COVID-19.

 “We might have enlarged our dining room or whatever just to be able to give a little more space to people.” 

The delay in funding comes at a time when operators need to prepare for the coming season without the usual winter revenue stream from the deposits on new bookings.

Outpost Camp Boats

‘Bookings are pretty darned good’ at Clark’s Resorts and Outposts, says co-owner Wayne Clark. Still, he estimated, about 40 per cent of their customers are unvaccinated and another 10 per cent don’t want to come to Canada because of the COVID-19 testing requirements and Ottawa’s ArriveCAN app. (Clarksresorts.com)

Most of this year’s bookings are rescheduled from previous years, the deposits having been paid during previous seasons. 

“We’ve had to carry those same deposits over, so there’s been no new money coming in,” said Clark, who pivoted his business during the pandemic to focus on air cargo, bait shops and even a gas station.

“We had to take out government loans in order to make our payments, and all that did was set it back maybe another eight or 10 years. And we’re already in our 60s already. So there’s definitely no hope of ever retiring for sure.”

Brown described himself as “very troubled, very worried” about the coming season.

Other tourism operators expressed optimism coupled with uncertainty. 

“It will be the best season since the start of the pandemic,” Cariou said. 

“Last year, you know, after Aug. 9, there was some recovery. But we’re in a deep hole. We’re still digging out of it.”

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