Thunder Bay

Lodge owners in northwestern Ontario frustrated over lack of clarity in border reopening

Rocky Moen says in the summer of 2020, he filled his 28-bed resort for the equivalent of one-and-a-half days. This summer, isn't looking any better.

Many operators rely on US traffic for revenue, no indication when border will reopen

New Moon Lodge, on its own island on Lake of the Woods near Morson, Ont., has around 40 "people days" where guests will stay overnight, said owner Rocky Moen. On an average year, the lodge would have up to 3,000 "people days". (New Moon Lodge/Facebook)

Rocky Moen says in the summer of 2020, he filled his 28-bed resort for the equivalent of one-and-a-half days. This summer, isn't looking any better.

Moen owns the New Moon Lodge, located just outside of Morson, Ont. The area is off the beaten path - you have to want to get to Morson, you don't just pass through.

The location means Moen relies on returning clients, specifically from the nearby United States, to keep his business afloat. Traffic from Winnipeg rarely makes it far enough south on Highway 71, and then over to Morson - to stay a few nights at the lodge.

"We rely pretty much on American customers. We don't have the luxury of being close to Toronto, where, as far as North Bay, those resorts didn't notice as much of a drop in business. We in this region, we got hit pretty hard."

Normally, New Moon Lodge would be more or less operating at capacity. This year, there's only one group booked to stay at the resort, a group of 8 people, coming in from Winnipeg. 

Still, Moen is optimistic that at some point this summer, tourists from the United States will be allowed into Canada.

"You know, with all the overhead, it would help some. We really do rely on that May, June, July to make a real impact. It would help. One month would help. A month, month and a half would help," Moen said.

An announcement earlier this week about easing restrictions at the Canadian border did little to make it possible for tourists to come into Canada.

The lodge itself counts its occupancy by "people days," or the number of guests who stay, per night. Anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 "people days" are the average for the operation. This year, so far, the bookings show about 40 will happen.

"We did get some grants and assistance from the federal government, which helped a lot, but basically you've still got insurance costs, you have fixed costs that you can't get away from," he said, noting that insurance has increased, and there's still continual maintenance and fuel costs as well.

Moen considers himself fortunate, as he's been able to do some private contracting, by building docks and making repairs to other private camps on the lake. His daughter, a red seal chef, is taking over the resort's dining room, and offering high-end meals to locals who can boat to the resort, located on an island.

A duck confit, wild rice dish, created at the New Moon Lodge by Kristin Moen, is one of the potential menu items offered to dinner guests, while the business pivots to accommodate locals. The majority of customers, who are usually from the United States are unable to get to the resort due to COVID-19 restrictions. (New Moon Lodge/Facebook)

"That doesn't make much of an impact on the debt load that we have. It'll help, it'll get our name out there, but by no means is it going to make up for the lost revenue."

"A day and a half of business really doesn't add up," he said, noting that if resort owners were told last year the border would be closed for the entire summer, they may have made different decisions, and could have saved money.

The frustration of the closed border is not lost on Eric Melillo, the MP for the Kenora riding.

"I've been told from a lot of people, who tell me straight up, obviously they want the border to open but if it's going to remain closed, as long as they can know that, they can at least plan and have some sense of where to go. More information, more transparency from the government on this would make a world of a difference for these businesses," Melillo said.

"Primarily, what we need to see is a plan of how we're going to reopen. It's something I've been calling for, for upwards of six months now. The data, the metrics, the transparency from the government of what it's going to take to deem the border should be open. I think our businesses have been waiting for far too long and it's time we have that plan in place."

Moen's daughter-in-law, who also works at the lodge, said she's contacted MPP Greg Rickford numerous times, with constituency assistant's listing off what provincial programs are available - many of which the seasonal business is not eligible for.

Moen said there is some assistance available from the federal government, which he has taken advantage of, but small loans and grants, as well as wage subsidies only go so far to cover overhead.

"We've been out of really any income, it'll be two full summers. Even if it is a season, or a season and a half, I don't see how it can shut off."

Moen said what's most important, is a plan to reopen the border is formulated, and communicated soon, before it's too late for businesses going on two years, with virtually no revenue.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.

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