Tourism industry in Sioux Lookout struggling to stay afloat
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
The months of May, June and July have always been flourishing times for tourism in Sioux Lookout. With COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of the border to American tourists, local lodges and camps say it has been difficult to attract visitors from other areas to enjoy Sioux Lookout's tremendous fishing opportunities.
The Executive Director of Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association, Gerry Cariou said, “With the coronavirus and the associated lockdown, our region of Canada has been more adversely affected than almost every other region in the country. Our area is unique because of our high dependence on Americans.” Sunset Country Area runs from west of Thunder Bay to the Manitoba border.
The owner of Slate Falls Outposts, Ryan Runge who had just bought the business two years ago said, “It’s stressful, extremely stressful. I have three young kids at home and the only reason we’re staying alive is the fact that I’m using all my retirement savings. I normally hire my wife. I couldn’t hire her at all this year and I’ve cut my own wage in half just to survive,” he said.
Cariou estimated that in the area of Sunset Country, the lodges and resorts that service American anglers and hunters contribute to about 80 percent of the annual tourism revenue. The owner of Winoga Lodge, Troy Mansfield said, “I’m speaking for myself, but this probably applies to all the outfitters in Sioux Lookout, that 99 percent of our clientele base comes from the Midwest United States, being Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota and area. The Midwest is closer to us than the rest of Canada. People from Manitoba stop in Kenora.”
“We did a lot of maintenance in our resort and our facilities. All this started with the idea that the border would open and that we would have clientele. So, we invested our money in the beginning in labor and stuff to fix up the facility and make everything better. But our tourism season was ended before it even got started,” said Mansfield.
Jackie Duhamel, owner of Anderson’s Lodge, said business is down 90 per cent. She mentioned that they have been working hard to operate within the recommended rules that the provincial and the federal governments have for local visitors. “We fog our cabins, we strip down and wash everything. The COVID-19 requirements to operate, which requires extra cleaning, is an added expense to businesses that people can’t afford, but at the same time, also can’t not afford it,” said Duhamel. She added that the staff assisting fishing and tour groups is also masked as required, along with taking proper measures to disinfect their surfaces. “We don’t feel comfortable handling dine-in for our restaurant, but we are offering take out and have folks sit on the picnic table to enjoy a meal or even deliver it to their home,” she said.
Canada closed its borders to non-essential travel in March, and it is unclear when they will be opened again. Cariou mentioned that there has not been any direct finical help from the government, apart from waving certain fees related to licenses and the annual land use permit fee. “Could you live on less than 10 percent of your annual income for a period of 18 months, with almost no help from the government?” he asked.
Runge said that the camps in Southern Ontario are seemingly doing well, some doing better than their regular season. With a huge population to draw from, they are attracting people who couldn’t go to the United States for their vacation this year, being a benefit to the camps. “I think if the bulk of the camps in the Southern area are doing well, the government thinks that everybody up here must be doing well because of these staycations,” he said.
“There is no direct financial help by the government like Canada Emergency Response Benefit for a business, it’s for individuals,” said Cariou. He also shared that the only aid from the Government of Ontario was waving certain fees relating to licenses and the annual land use permit. He said that the wage subsidy might not be as helpful to the tourism industry in Sioux Lookout, since they have no customers, there is no need for employees.
The owner of Ghost River Camp, Tina Kartinen, who has owned the business for over 25 years, shared that they have experienced a 100 percent loss. “The wage subsidy has been a help. The loan that they have put out for everyone, it’s a repayment that we took advantage of. But we got to pay it back. So, just as long as things open up, next year for us will happen. If things don’t open up it could look like a whole different thing,” she said.
“The outfitters in a small business community in tourism need direct financial grants, not loans,” said Cariou. Mansfield shared that having a diverse background, they have been considering several alternate sources of income to keep their business afloat. With six out of eight of his staff showing up this spring anticipating work, the team undertook hauling material and constructing a cabin. They are also renting a few pieces of heavy construction equipment that they own. “Technically we went from being outfitters to being contractors for construction because there was nothing else,” he said.
Runge, who runs one of the largest moose hunts in the Sioux Lookout area, will barely be running at 20 percent of what he normally did. “We were able to get the $40,000 loan. So if I pay that back before 2022, I only have to pay $30 thousand back. But, as of right now, if we don’t open for next spring, I won’t even have the $30 thousand. That will be just another loan stacked on top of what I already have,” he said.
Nicole Archer of Moosehorn Lodge shared her several attempts to hear from the municipal, provincial and federal governments. A few tourist camps got together a request for a meeting with the CAO of the town, asking what the municipality could do to help. Archer said they received no response. “We have reached out to our MPP, who has never responded once. We reached out to the Economic Development Officer. We’ve met with her personally and they were working on a project and the funding fell through. But we’ve never heard anything about that project moving forward. We have sent a pile of letters and I’ve made specific requests for information and there has been no response. I feel there’s been a lack of communication between the camps that have asked for communication,” she added.
“We were just left hanging every time there was supposed to be the border opening, just to find out that the border continued to be closed,” said Mansfield. Cariou shared that lodges had full bookings of Americans for this summer. “They couldn’t access domestic tourism because then they’ll be double booked and they didn’t know whether the government would keep the borders closed all summer,” he added.
Archer said that every tourism camp in the area is unique and that they were able to draw customers because of their location and accessibility. “Even this year, I’ve had to turn people away as our cabins were full, especially as we have had a few essential contractors from the beginning of the season,” she said.
“What I need to survive right now is some kind of grant. I just bought this camp. There are a lot of people who have been in this business for several years and don’t have a giant mortgage like I do. Every day I lose money. Every day,” said Runge.
With some government money that was available, Sunset Country did ads on Facebook and aired on local radio. However, Cariou said that the results of that weren’t significant due to lack of time. “Your house is your lodge if you live in Northwestern Ontario. People don’t want to pay for what they already have,” he added.
Runge said that he felt now was not a great time for the $1.2 million investing by the Ontario Government for a marketing campaign, encouraging domestic tourism within Northern Ontario. “Our season’s over. There are very few camps that run in the winter. I don’t run during the winters, so my season is done. I’ve already lost it all so the advertising actually helps me zero,” he concluded.
Duhamel said that they are being faced with an entire year of marketing, in hopes of being full next season. However, “There’s been no direction as to whether we can market to the U.S. marketplace again and what will be happening. So, we’re sort of marketing blindly.” She worries about the winter months, when the tourism industry would typically rely on revenue generated during summertime.
Several lodges and outfitters are focusing on selling their moose hunts, and fishing, for anyone interested. However, it is tough to compete with the American prices for the same facilities being provided locally.
“It wasn’t a poor economic decision of the small business owner. It was a decision made by the government. Each country made their decision that crushed all these businesses. I believe everyone is able to do their own thing and be self-sufficient. But at this point the government is responsible for what happened.
“It’s not that we expect the border to open. Because if this COVID scare is as serious, then we got to keep the border closed. But then you get everyone who says that we’re all in this together, well now is the time to prove it by supporting each other’s businesses and community,” said Mansfield.
Runge fears that if there is no immediate help provided by the government, he would have to start from scratch. “If the border doesn’t open for the next season, which there has been rumors about, then we have some plans for some different opportunities and things that we can engage the community with,” Archer said.
The industry is also faced with the risk of losing some of their potential customers. With the numerous restrictions and the uncertainty associated with international travel, it may further push some groups away.
“Some people expected to get a faster response, but at the same time you can’t rush something you don’t have the answer for. So, hopefully the Mayor is doing his homework. What questions do we ask? Gathering as much information as he can amongst the business owners and outfitters in this community to figure out a plan for what to do next,” Mansfield concluded.