Sudbury

Northern Ontario tourism operators brace for tough season

When the Victoria Day long weekend arrives, Ray Sapiano is usually welcoming his first visitors of the season at his hunting and fishing resort in Temagami. But this year, the docks aren't out, the boats aren't ready, and Sapiano isn't sure what to expect in the months ahead. 

Many businesses could close permanently if they lose the season, says advocacy group

The Victoria Day long weekend typically marks the start of the season at Marten River Lodge, but this year, the boats aren't out, and there are no visitors. (Marten River Lodge)

When the Victoria Day long weekend arrives, Ray Sapiano is usually welcoming his first visitors of the season at his hunting and fishing resort in Temagami. But this year, the docks aren't out, the boats aren't ready, and Sapiano isn't sure what to expect in the months ahead. 

"We're not doing the typical stuff. First of all I don't have staff," said Sapiano, who usually hires five people to work alongside him and his wife at Marten River Lodge. 

"I have a kitchen and dining room here, we're not prepping that. We're not readying any of the cabins at this point, because the season, quite honestly, is questionable."

For businesses that rely on tourism, the season is short, and as summer approaches, many business owners wonder just how hard they'll be hit this summer — as they brace for drastically lower revenues. 

'Pretty terrifying'

Sapiano says he has run several financial models for what the summer could look like. At this point he says the only "firm decision" he has made is that the lodge will not be operating in May, and he says things are "not looking very promising for June." He knows it's possible he may not open at all until 2021. 

"It's going to be some hardship and pain between now and then. And I expect that it's going to take us between three and five years to dig ourselves back out of this hole we're in," Sapiano said. 

Donna and Ray Sapiano own Marten River Lodge in Temagami. They're planning both for the possibility of a short season this year, or no season at all. (Marten River Lodge)

While Sapiano is confident his business will survive, for some operators, losing the season could mean losing their business altogether, according to Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario (NOTO). The organization represents resource-based tourism businesses in the province, most of which are in northern Ontario. 

Executive director Laurie Marcil says the COVID-19 shutdown has been "devastating" for the industry. 

Marcil says NOTO recently surveyed members to find out what the impact on revenue will be, if they have to stay closed for all of May and June. 

"The lion's share of them said it was going to be between 40 and 50 per cent business revenue, for the year. And remember, these are seasonal businesses. They only have four to five months to generate that annual revenue," Marcil said. 

Laurie Marcil, with Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, says this summer could be "devastating" for the industry. (Submitted by Laurie Marcil)

Of the 225 respondents, Marcil says more than 30 per cent said if that's the case, they will be "seriously considering permanent closure." 

"If that stands true for all the people that didn't take the time to answer the survey, it's pretty terrifying for the province of Ontario." 

'Rely on the locals'

Marcil says she's worried about the individual businesses, and also about the affects on their local communities — both the people who are usually employed in the industry, as well as the local economic spin-off for other businesses from visiting tourists.

"That money is going to be very much missed in our northern communities," Marcil said.

As businesses plan for a very different season, it is those local communities themselves that many will be relying on, if they're able to open. 

At the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, admissions fees account for 42 per cent of total annual revenue. The museum sees the majority of its visitors between the May and October long weekends, and most of them are tourists, says executive director Dan Ingram. 

Dan Ingram is the executive director of the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie. (Submitted by Dan Ingram)

"We're going to have to rely on the locals. And hopefully people within you know a drive, a day drive of the city — for example Wawa, Blind River, that kind of thing — coming to the museum," Ingram said. 

He knows revenue will de down this year, but he hopes to be able to open — with new physical distancing measures in place — sometime this summer. His sights are currently set on July. 

"We're not generating any revenue at all, and our cash flow is starting to bleed pretty quickly," Ingram said.

While revenues will be lower this summer, the general manager of Killarney Mountain Lodge says a number of people from the region have called to make bookings. (Michael Muraz)

Some businesses say they're already seeing signs of local support, even as their doors remain closed for the time being.

At Killarney Mountain Lodge, general manager Kelly McAree says the business has budgeted for a 60 per cent loss in revenue this year. But he says he's had a number of bookings from people within the province, who hope to stay at the lodge this season. 

"There's a real feeling that people are itching to get out of their homes, and that they're looking to vacation closer to home. So we're buoyed by that response, and very thankful." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah MacMillan is a reporter with CBC Sudbury. She previously worked with CBC P.E.I. You can contact her at sarah.macmillan@cbc.ca

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