Canadian resorts hope for pandemic reprieve
Duluth Sport Show bookings may help make up for two lost summers of business.
DULUTH — Canadian resorts, lodges and fishing camps got a little taste of pre-pandemic normalcy after Aug. 9 when the border opened, for the first time in nearly 18 months, allowing U.S. residents north for fun.
But the trickle of late summer and fall guests, the first revenue for many in the Canadian tourism business in nearly two years, came too late in the season to save the otherwise bleak financial year. And now, Ontario resort owners are hoping for an open border for all of 2022 with more COVID-19 restrictions falling by the wayside and more Yanks heading north.
“Realize that 90-100% of our tourist camp business up here is U.S. residents. So imagine having no customers for your business for essentially two years,” said Gerry Cariou, executive director of the Kenora-based Ontario Sunset Country tourism group. “We’re optimistic. But this area has taken a huge economic hit. It’s going to be a long-term recovery, years maybe, for all of the businesses to bounce back from this.”
The lack of cash flow for two years has hampered the ability of some resorts to come south to drum up business this winter, a time when many resort owners normally attend U.S. sport shows to fill up remaining openings for summer. Ongoing COVID concerns also have hampered marketing; the Chicago boat show was canceled entirely due to an increasing COVID caseload in that area. There are fewer Canadian resorts on this year’s list for the Duluth Sport Show that starts Thursday, noted Chris Navratil, owner of Shamrock Productions, which runs the show.
Cariou will be at the Duluth event recruiting tourists to visit his members across northwestern Ontario. But he said some resorts are holding back on spending for promotion until more customers start crossing the border that was closed to noncritical travel from March 2020 to August 2021. Membership in his group dropped from over 200 lodges pre-pandemic to about 165 today, with some owners saying they can’t afford the annual dues until they have more cash in the till.
While the Canadian border opened to “discretionary” travel Aug. 9, the crossing comes with strings attached that have held back some travelers.
U.S. travelers heading north still must:
- Be fully vaccinated and have their vaccination card with them when they cross the border.
- Download the new ArriveCan app on their smartphone or on their home computer and register for their crossing, giving the location and date and uploading your passport or enhanced driver’s license data.
- Take a molecular COVID test, and bring documentation of a negative result, no more than 72 hours prior to crossing the border. (Or have proof of a positive COVID test at least 14 days but no more than six months ago.)
- Be subject to a random COVID test after crossing the border. The test is self-administered but must be witnessed online by a health company representative. The test is then sent by overnight delivery courier to a testing facility. Anyone with a positive test result must quarantine for 14 days in Canada.
“What we really need is for our government to get rid of that pre-crossing test. It’s really problematic and expensive for a lot of people. It’s a big reason why some people wouldn’t come,” Cariou said. “And get rid of the random test, too. That's a big problem for people going to remote outposts and lodges.”
Cariou said he's optimistic that the border crossing restrictions will ease more before the summer tourism season reaches full-stride. But he expects the vaccination requirement to stick.
“Even that is a problem with a certain percentage of the U.S. customer base. They won’t come because of it,” he said.
Sue Weidemann at Pipestone Point, a boat-to resort on Lake of the Woods not far from Kenora, Ontario, said she’s seeing an increase of people inquiring about rates for the coming summer, the first time that's happened in more than two years.
“Everyone I talk to wants a (business) card. They are asking about prices. They’re asking about dates. … There’s clearly pent-up demand to go fishing in Canada," she said.
Weidemann said customers who were booked for 2020 will fill up many of the weeks this summer, having rolled over their deposits for the two summers the border was closed.
“So far, we’re getting all those people to come back,” she said. “I hope that continues.”
Greg Dick, owner of Elk Island Lodge and Outposts on God’s Lake in northern Manitoba, will be at the Duluth show hoping to fill in a few remaining lodge openings for summer 2022. He’s honoring deposits made by U.S. customers from the scrubbed 2020 season, so many of his slots are booked for 2022. But he says he’s still getting calls from a few groups wondering if the vaccine mandate will be enforced by Canadian border officials.
“They're saying they don’t know if everyone in the group will get their vaccine, so they wonder if they can get their deposit back. I tell them absolutely not, that’s their choice, not mine,” Dick said. “I didn’t want to get the shots either. But if you want to travel, you have to play by the rules.”
Dick said he tried to stay open for 2020 hoping the border would open. That turned out to be a “nightmare. I lost my shirt in the lodge business.”
He played a hunch correctly and didn't expect or even try to open in 2021. Even now, though, Dick said nearly all travel has become more stressful, and that especially traveling by airline and making connections during COVID is enough to scare some people away. His customers must drive or fly to Winnipeg before getting on his charter to the lodge.
“If people think their travel is going to be seamless, I say don’t even bother, don’t come, because it’s more stressful now to travel than ever before. COVID just compounded everything,” Dick said. “But the border is open. I don’t think that will change. So we’re going to have U.S. guests back this year, and that’s huge. ... People want their fishing.”
If you go
What: Duluth Sport Show
When: 3-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20
Where: Duluth Entertainment Convention Center
Admission: $10 for ages 18 and up; $6 for ages 6-17; free for ages 5 and under
Parking: $5 per vehicle in the DECC parking lot
Complete schedule: duluthsportshow.com/daily-schedule
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com .