Northwestern Ontario tourism operators hope for a rebound this summer, but hurdles remain


Beleaguered remote tour operators in northwestern Ontario are hoping for a good season after two years of economic devastation caused by the closure of the Canada-US border.

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

Companies offering wilderness hunting and fishing experiences, often at lodges accessible by plane or boat, depend on American tourists for about 90-95% of their business. They’ve spent the past two summers paying high overhead on things like plane insurance and heating fuel while generating minimal revenue.

The opening of borders means they can expect a better year than the previous two, said Gerry Cariou, executive director of Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association.

I had a guy, honestly — and it’s the truth — he said, “It’s easier to go to heaven right now than to get into Canada. – Gerry Cariou, Ontario 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 use of the ArriveCAN app — are a deterrent for about 30% of American customers.

“Honestly, I had a guy – and it’s the truth – he said, ‘It’s easier to get into heaven right now than to get into Canada,'” Cariou said.

Gerry Cariou, executive director of the Sunset Country Travel Association, says someone told him it was easier to go to paradise than to Canada. He was referring to pandemic mandates that apply to travellers. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Eric Brown, owner and president of Totem Lodge, Yellowbird Lodge and Wiley Point Lodge, said the cross-border vaccination mandate has cost him about 75% of his business this year. Indeed, the large corporate groups that represent half of its business often choose not to come if even a small number of their customers cannot cross the border.

“Let’s say a bus of 50 guys is going to come from a company or a group, and 10 of them aren’t vaccinated. Then they go, ‘You know what? We’re not going to come,'” he said. “So even though they’ve had 40 guys vaccinated, they’ve made a business decision that no, we’re not going to shut out 10 of our top customers.”

Wayne Clark, co-owner of Clark’s Resorts and Outposts in Vermillion Bay, said bookings for 2022 are “very good”, but he estimated around 40% of his guests are unvaccinated and another 10% simply don’t want to. not come to Canada because they don’t want to deal with the testing requirements and the ArriveCAN application from the government.

Starting this Friday, the Canadian government scraps COVID-19 testing requirement for people entering the country, but only if they have received at least two injections.

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

“They’re starting to cancel again,” he said. “We’re hoping we’re going to have a good season. But there really isn’t a pit left to go to. … If that doesn’t happen where we can have a successful summer and a successful opening, that’s probably going to be the last. end of many of us.”

Still awaiting funding for the revival of tourism

Operators say the delay in funding the province’s $100 million Tourism Recovery Program is adding to the financial strain.

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

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

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

“I kind of postponed some things, because I was waiting to hear about it,” she said, adding that she hoped to renovate to create more space for distancing due to COVID- 19.

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

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

“Bookings are pretty darn good” at Clark’s Resorts and Outposts, says co-owner Wayne Clark. Still, he estimated, about 40% of their customers are unvaccinated and another 10% don’t want to come to Canada due to COVID-19 testing requirements and Ottawa’s ArriveCAN app. (clarksresorts.com)

Most of this year’s bookings are carried over from previous years, with deposits having been made in previous seasons.

“We had to defer those same deposits, so there was no new money,” 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 government loans to make our payments, and all it did was set it back maybe eight or 10 years. And we’re already in our 60s. So there’s no hope to retire for sure.”

Brown described himself as “very troubled, very worried” about the upcoming 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 August 9, there was some recovery. But we’re in a deep hole. We’re still digging it.”