In July, northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country tourism released a short video that wasn’t about promoting tourism. Instead, the video pointed out that drive-up resorts and fly-in outposts, which depend on American customers for more than 90 percent of their business, are at a complete standstill due to the pandemic-related border closure.
Most operations chose to not open this year. However, they continue to have significant costs for maintenance and upkeep. But lodge operators say that unlike other Canadian industries, tourism has not received targeted support and financial assistance from the government. They warn that without such intervention, the nation’s tourism industry is facing catastrophic devastation. If that happens, the effects on the Canadian economy will be long-lasting.
“Tourism in Canada is larger than agriculture, forestry and mining combined,” says Ted Putnam, owner of Hawk Lake Lodge east of Kenora. “It brings billions of dollars into the country. That money stays in the country.”
Putnam, who is on the Sunset Country board of directors, says lodges that have been operated by the same families for decades are in danger of going under. Most chose not to open this year, because Canada had a stricter lockdown than the U.S., including restrictions on cross-provincial travel, which limited their ability to attract Canadian customers. The operating costs associated with opening their businesses are substantial, especially when they were faced with the likelihood of few customers and the possibility of having to shut down if virus cases surged. The reality is that 2020 covid closures have cost the lodge industry the end of the ice fishing season, the spring bear hunt, spring and summer fishing and very likely the fall bear hunt.
“This is a seasonal business,” Putnam said. “That’s what makes our situation so difficult. Now we are nervous about next year.”
The lodge operators are not calling for the border to the U.S. to reopen. The vast majority of Canadians do not want to see the border open until the U.S. has contained the novel coronavirus. What they do want is a recognition of their plight by the Canadian government.
“No one seems to be hearing our voice,” said Putnam. “We don’t think the government cares about us. We may not be the GMs and Chryslers of the world, but if you add us up, we have a substantial economic impact.”
Thunder Bay, an urban tourism destination on Lake Superior, has fared somewhat better. Paul Pepe, the city’s tourism director, says U.S. travelers account for 33 percent of the Thunder Bay’s tourism market, as opposed to 95 percent for the lodges and fly-in outposts. Ontarians from the southern part of the province are venturing to the city, even though the Ministry of Health is still advising no travel.
“We’re seeing some new trends,” Pepe said. “We have a younger market coming from Toronto and there are more Canadian motorcyclists than we’ve seen in recent years. Right now, we’re celebrating these little successes.”
Pepe can also cite grim statistics. One third of Ontario’s tourism attractions don’t expect to survive the year. This is actually an improvement, because 60 percent were saying they wouldn’t make it as recently as May. He is optimistic the government will act to help the tourism industry weather the covid storm.
“Saving the industry now benefits everyone later,” he said.
For Putnam, government intervention can’t come soon enough.
“I find it very sad to see long time operators who have seen it all now watch everything they’ve worked for evaporate before their eyes,” he said. “There is nothing they can do. It just crushes me. We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into our businesses.”