Northern tourism, fishing lodge industries hope to salvage summer season as travel restrictions loosen
Premier signaled travel restriction above 53rd parallel may soon be lifted, though no firm date released
Monster lake trout, pike and pickerel lure anglers to northern lake lodges every summer, but it appeared some of those fish were off the hook when the pandemic closures hit Manitoba.
First it was the Canada-U.S. border closure in March. Then came northern Manitoba travel restrictions above the 53rd parallel in mid-April.
Kenanow Lodge on Kississing Lake, accessible by road about 50 kilometres northeast of Flin Flon, was one of many remote lodges forced to cancel bookings into late June.
But now, as the province signals plans to loosen the northern travel rule, Kenanow co-owners Chris and Sheryl Matheson wonder if they may be able to salvage some of the season after all.
"Right now we have no clientele, we have cancellations like crazy," said Chris Matheson, adding most years Americans and people from out-of-province make up the bulk of their family business.
"The only thing we can hope for is Manitobans want to travel in their own province."
A stretch of few-to-no new COVID-19 cases prompted Premier Brian Pallister to unveil details to Phase 2 of provincial reopening plans on Thursday, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule.
The province plans to soon relax the restriction against non-essential travel north of the 53rd parallel. Direct travel to parks, campgrounds, lodges, cabins and resorts will be allowed so long as physical distancing measures are in effect. That's likely to occur soon, although it isn't clear exactly when.
When it does happen, some hard-hit northern tourism and recreational fishing economies may be able to generate some revenue if Manitobans choose to explore their backyard this summer, said Brian Kotak.
"It's really good news," said Kotak, executive director with the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association.
"It provides a lot of relief to our lodge operators and they're really looking forward to bring in guests."
He said there's more than enough information out there on how lodges can safely restart business and keep their cabins, boats and gear clean.
"The big unknown is when is this going to be allowed, but I am pretty confident it's going to be soon," he said.
WATCH | Northern tourism industry hopes to salvage some of summer season with lifting travel restrictions:
The grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs questions whether it's the right time to be talking about lifting the northern travel restriction.
"In my opinion it is too soon," said Arlen Dumas.
The initial travel restriction was a joint move by the province and Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team, which includes AMC, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba.
The group also entered an agreement with the province to share data from people who tested positive for COVID-19 and voluntarily provided their ethnicity.
They only recently obtained and released that data publicly, and it showed some positive signs: there have been zero known cases on First Nations. Sixteen First Nations people living off-reserve have tested positive.
Dumas credits that to the vigilance of northern First Nations and the preventive steps each has taken to best serve their community.
He said he wants to let the statistics and information-sharing inform how First Nations and the province move forward together.
"I think that if we open the doors a little too quickly without taking that evidence that we've gathered into consideration then we'll all make a mistake."
Opening northern travel won't benefit Mike Reimer.
Reimer owns Churchill Wild, remote eco lodges on the Hudson Bay coast south and north of Churchill that take visitors on beluga and polar bear excursions.
Most of their clients are from Europe, Asia and Australia; some are also from the U.S.; and nearly all have cancelled trips months into the future.
"It's not looking good," he said.
He's bracing to lose 80 to 90 per cent of his annual revenue.
"Even when they do open things up, most of our guests are saying they're too nervous, they'll wait until next year," he said, adding it would be challenging for guests to adhere to physical distancing in his lodges.
"I guess I'll work on my golf game."
John Gunter, the president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, another Churchill wildlife tourism outfit, wants more clarity from the province on how this will work.
"If the opportunity for Churchill to host Manitoban guests this summer is a possibility, it would be ideal for the province to acknowledge that sooner rather than later so southern Manitoba families who may have been planning a trip to Wisconsin Dells or the Badlands, for example, can start considering a bucket-list family trip to experience Churchill's beluga whales instead," he said.