Hundreds of Ontario tourism businesses — resorts, lodges and fly-in fishing camps — face financial disaster if the U.S.-Canada border doesn’t open this summer.
That was the message from several Ontario tourism business owners recently who held a video news conference essentially begging their government to allow vaccinated U.S. residents to come north to fish and play, to reopen the border that’s been closed for nearly 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need the border open as soon as possible or we won’t be here,” said Ryan Runge, owner of Slate Falls Outposts near Sioux Lookout, Ontario. “We need a plan to fully reopen the border so our businesses can survive. … Vaccinated Americans should be allowed to cross the border on July 22 with a full plan in place (from the Canadian government) well before that.”
Runge said he purchased the business in 2019, had one full year of operations and then has been mostly shut down ever since. Without the financial leeway granted by the former owner and his bank, Runge said he would have already lost the business by now.
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"And this is impacting you people as well. I probably go to Duluth as much as I go to Winnipeg. But, obviously, I can't now,'' Runge said,
The media event was sponsored by Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, a tourism promotion group that represents many of the more than 1,000 lodges and camps in the area, about 150 of them owned by U.S. residents. The group reports a region-wide 91%-97% decline in business in 2020 and 2021 with the Canada-U.S. border closed since March 2020, ostensibly in an effort to prevent the movement of potentially infected people.
While much of the Minnesota-based media coverage of the border closure has been on how it impacts the Northwest Angle of Minnesota, with 119 residents and a handful of lodges, the closure is impacting thousands of northwestern Ontario residents dependent on U.S. tourists coming north through Minnesota to get there.
“We had 88 employees pre-pandemic. … The U.S. is 97% of our business,” said Alex Cheesman, owner of Wilderness North fly-in fishing outposts near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
More than 1 million U.S. residents visit northwestern Ontario each year, spending more than a half-billion dollars, said Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario. She said many lodge owners have spent down their life savings to stay afloat during the pandemic and that members of the group on average have taken on an added $100,000 in debt.
In some areas of northwestern Ontario far from Canadian population centers, namely the region directly north of Minnesota, some businesses have lost 100% of their income, with virtually all their customers from the U.S.
“Many of these businesses have not had any revenue since 2019,” Marcil said.
Still no reopening plan announced
So far, the governments of both nations have simply extended the monthly closure each month — 15 times — with no publicly apparent plan for when and how the border might reopen. The border remains closed through at least July 21. While there has been widespread speculation that a border reopening is near, the lodge owners fear their government will simply extend the closure to Aug. 21, a move that would kill most of their 2021 season.
“The lack of a long-term plan by the government (to reopen the border) really makes me feel like I’m dying a slow death,’’ said Carol Anniuk, owner of Young's Wilderness Camps on Lake of the Woods near Nestor Falls, Ontario. “We need the border open now. … We can’t live in a bubble forever.”
Tourism officials noted that both the U.S. and Canada have infection rates far lower than World Health Organization guidelines for open borders and that vaccination rates are climbing in both countries.
The Ontario tourism group has sent a formal request to the Canadian federal government agencies involved to stop the month-to-month extensions of the border closure, form a plan for a limited reopening and allow fully vaccinated U.S. residents to cross by land if they show proof of where they will be staying. Business owners note that it’s not hard to socially distance in the woods of northern Ontario, and they have offered their region as a test for a limited border reopening.
In addition to lodges, hundreds of businesses that support the tourism industry — gas stations, bait shops, pilots, guides, grocery stores, hotels and restaurants — all have seen business drop to unsustainable levels.
While the Canadian government has offered some grant and loan programs for the hard-hit tourism sector, many business owners say they simply can’t afford to take on more debt with no clear sign when they will begin taking in revenue again.
“We don’t have any more time left,’’ said Jackie Duhamel, owner of Anderson’s Lodge in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. “We need the border open now.”