The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be evenly distributed across Canada.
Particularly vulnerable are the cottage-country businesses that depend on tourists and seasonal
residents from the big cities to break even each year. TVO.org is speaking with business
owners and industry leaders in rural Ontario to assess the economic toll so far and discuss what
more can be done. Today: Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario.
Matt Gurney: Laurie, I should tell you as we start that I originally had thought I’d approach this as a story about hunting and fishing, and I did contact the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. They listened to what I was hoping to do with this interview and said that they’d be happy to talk to me, but they felt you might be better. I’m always grateful as a journalist when someone says that — it makes my job easier. This is all my way of saying, first of all, thank you to them, but to you: Don’t let me down. We’re all counting on you.
Laurie Marcil: [laughs] Well, I’ll do my best.
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Gurney: So let’s just establish some general outlines here. So far, the articles I’ve written have focused on cottage country, the belt within a relatively easy drive from Toronto, specifically. What’s your area of operations?
Marcil: Good question. Anywhere there is outdoor tourism in Ontario. That can mean in the Toronto cottage country, but it can mean even closer to the cities or across remote areas of northern Ontario. Northern Ontario really is a major part of what we think of as nature tourism in this province. But it can be anywhere there’s nature lodges or campgrounds in Ontario.
Gurney: I’m not going to ask you to show me on a map, but, in your own mind, where does cottage country peter out and “northern Ontario” begin? I know we talk about northern Ontario in economic terms or political terms sometimes, but what about in tourism terms?
Marcil: There isn’t a hard rule for us, either, it’s true. But, say, much north of Parry Sound or Huntsville — if you’re much north of that, the tourism industry begins to change from cottage-country based to more resources based.
Gurney: Huh. “Resources based.” I don’t know what that means.
Marcil: For tourism purposes, a resource is an animal to hunt, a fish to catch, or maybe some particular natural setting that itself is the resource — something very remote.
Gurney: So just being in a very northern, remote area can itself be the resource.
Marcil: You bet. The opportunities for hiking and camping in some pretty remarkable environments in northern Ontario is a huge draw for us.
Gurney: Tell me what a normal season is — I have to guess that you guys are very dependent on the warm-weather seasons.
Marcil: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There are businesses that stay open year-round that offer outdoor adventures. Think of the snowmobilers and cross-country skiing, dog sledding — those kinds of things. But the majority of our industry are seasonal operations. So they would start up in May, and they would close up after the summer. But the summer seems to be getting longer. There are operators that go right into October, particularly those that offer hunting experiences. But most of the annual revenue is in the five months from May to October.
Gurney: What about the rest of the year, for the seasonal operators? Particularly the staff.
Marcil: Generally, the staff are seasonal employees. So they will either collect unemployment in the offseason or they have other seasonal jobs that they take up when they're not working in the summer. Many times, the only full-time employees are the owners. They don't stop work. The marketing season is usually, you know, from, say, December all the way through to April, right up into May, and that means that they may be doing the sport shows, whether it's in the States or here in Ontario, in other provinces. That's when they fill up their season for next year. They still have all those fixed costs. So they have to be generating revenue in some way, which means that they're taking deposits and bookings for upcoming trips.
Gurney: Just in very general terms, what are these businesses? When I called up the hunting guys, like I said, they were happy to talk to me, but warned me that I’d only be getting a slice of the story. So what’s the story?
Marcil: Hunting is big. For sure. But, by far, our biggest nature-tourism industry in Ontario is fishing. It brings in more than $250 million annually. It’s huge. Hunting is about $40 million. In northern Ontario alone, the entire tourism sector is $400 million — more than a thousand seasonal businesses are involved.
Gurney: I had no idea. I would have assumed hunting was bigger than fishing.
Marcil: Angling is huge. Fishing is a thriving industry here. So fishing first, and then hunting. Don’t get me wrong, hunting is still very important. It’s a huge economic driver. But people don’t know how important fishing is for a lot of northern communities and tourism companies.
Gurney: Who are your clients, generally? Where are they coming from?
Marcil: All over. Predominantly Americans, probably, but also huge support from all over Canada, including southern Ontario.
Gurney: And now the Americans can’t come. And people aren’t travelling much around Canada, either. And you’ve already told me about the direct economic benefit of fishing and hunting, but we haven’t even touched on all the economic spinoffs.
Marcil: Oh my goodness. Yes. My organization works directly with 1,300 tourism-related businesses. These operations purchase boat motors parts. Huge amounts of fuel. They order supplies like clothing; they order cleaning supplies. The list could go on forever. Not to mention their huge annual contributions to insurance. Those kinds of industries benefit from all the stuff that our operators do. Think about our northern communities in the summer months, the added benefit of having travellers going to their restaurants, filling up at their gas stations, maybe staying overnight on their way to their final destination. There's the grocery stores: if you're staying at a place where you provide your own meals, you cook your own stuff. It's huge. It's absolutely massive. And these communities also are where we get our employees from. So there's going to be a ton of people that are going to be without work until tourism can come back.
Gurney: What would normally be happening right now, before the boom in the season?
Marcil: The operators would be hiring staff. Ordering supplies. Getting cleaned up. Preparing for guests. It’s a very busy time of year.
Gurney: And what’s happening now? Are people spending money, taking a chance that they’ll get customers?
Marcil: It's been very difficult to get answers for people to help them plan their way through this. Initially, the focus was, okay, just, you know, batten down the hatches. But there’s no end in sight. Some will try to move guests to later in the season and hope the public-health situation improves and borders reopen. But we are aware that we just might not be able to open this year. And that’s scary. They still have all those fixed costs associated with a business. Equipment and supply orders, they’ll try and work with their suppliers. But the fixed costs? Commercial mortgages or loans? Insurance? We already have labour shortages, so we don’t want to see our workers move on after a season of no work. So, for our organization, our job is to try and help them by going to governments and saying, listen, we are a huge part of the local economy. We want these people in these businesses to be able to survive and help restart the economy in Ontario. We really need you to be supporting them now through this. And, so far, the federal-government programs, due to the eligibility criteria, exclude a lot of our businesses.
Gurney: How many of these businesses can survive missing a season?
Marcil: A lot of them are already looking at a lost season. May and June are huge months. If the businesses have fixed costs, especially mortgages and insurance for properties or equipment — like planes and boats — losing a season, or a big part of the season, may not be survivable. Right now, we are working with our partners to learn more. We are asking them if they can survive. We’ll have that answer in a few days. Right now, though, we’re very worried. There was one early survey for all of Canada, talking with tourism businesses, where 16 per cent said they may be facing permanent closure. We are working to get that number specifically for Ontario, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s that bad here. Maybe higher.
Gurney: What can they do to try and survive? It’s a terrible situation. I don’t know if there’s much they can do.
Marcil: We’re telling them, work with your clients. Make sure they want to come back when they can. With all the lockdowns and isolation, I think people will want to come to nature when they can. But, until then, manage your cash flow. Try to avoid unnecessary expenses. And maybe the government will come up with something.
Gurney: This might seem like a weird question, but will there be ecological implications to an entirely missed season? Humans are part of the ecosystem, too. Will we run into sustainability problems in the ecosystem without the usual fishing and hunting?
Marcil: That’s not a weird question. We looked at that. With angling, it’s probably not a problem. We very carefully manage removal of fish from our lakes. We conserve the fish stocks. So, in many areas, you can’t take the fish out. You catch and release. So a year with no fishing, if anything, will have a small positive impact for the fish stocks. But the problem is bears! The spring bear hunt would normally be starting around now. We already have issues of bears wandering into populated areas. A year without a bear hunt, yes, that could mean problems.
Gurney: As if we don’t have enough problems right now. Now we’re going to have bears invading the cities.
Marcil: [laughs] I know! But you’ve probably seen those videos already, right? Nature didn’t need long to bounce back when the people all stayed inside.
Gurney: I look forward to walking my kids around the block in midtown Toronto with my bear rifle over my shoulder. A bit more seriously, in cottage country, we’re seeing a lot of tension between local residents who don’t want anyone travelling to their areas, and business owners who need the tourists to come — what’s your sense of that issue for your operators in more northern areas, beyond the usual reach of the cottage owners?
Marcil: I have conversations with our tourism operators every day. We're all speaking out of both sides of our mouths. We desperately need the income; we desperately want to have our guests back. But we're very nervous about whether we have this under control. Many of our northern communities don't have the health infrastructure that other places have. And it’s not just tourists! As we hire seasonal staff, we don’t know where they’re coming from, always. So we're trying to shift the focus to what kinds of protocols we can put in place to make sure that we're covering all the bases and we're taking extra precautions around health and safety. Whether it's cleaning, changing the common areas in resorts, the dining rooms ... what can we do now that might let us reopen? And then, yes, we know there’s going to be a lot of PR we have to do, with our guests and locals, once it’s safe, so that everyone feels comfortable. But this is important. Our people don’t want to just live on government handouts. They want to open their businesses, once it’s safe.
Gurney: Is there a redline for the season? A point of no return beyond which it’s not worth opening?
Marcil: That's what we're trying to find out right now through our survey — if you can't have your May and June, if you can't open, what's the likelihood of you opening it all? There is a substantial cost to opening up your lodge, resort campground, whatever it is, and to receiving guests. Now there’s the added need for new protocols, new best practices to ensure everybody — your staff, yourself, your guests — is safe. That’s going to cost money, and, right now, these operators don’t have any cash flow. So we’re trying to take some of the administrative burden off the operators at my organization. But honestly? We just don’t know.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.