Summer of COVID, Part 4: The pandemic and Ontario’s north-south tourism divide

In the spring, TVO.org spoke to cottage-country business owners afraid that COVID-19 would harm their summer prospects. This week, we check back in
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 22, 2020
Ontario tourist destinations that are beyond driving range from Toronto have suffered during the pandemic. (iStock/sharply_done)

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This is the final instalment in a four-part series on cottage-country businesses and COVID-19. Read Part 3 here.

In the spring, TVO.org spoke with business owners across Ontario’s cottage country — rural areas home to many businesses that rely on a seasonal influx of tourists and part-time residents to survive. Pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as the overall economic shock of the crisis, were a real and present danger to many of these businesses. With August drawing to a close, the pandemic at least temporarily contained in Ontario, and schools set to reopen, TVO.org has been checking in with those communities again. Today, we speak to Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, an organization that describes itself as “dedicated to proactive planning, development, and promotion” of the province’s outdoor-tourism industry.

Matt Gurney: Laurie, I’ll start here by saying that before I put my recorder on and we went on the record, we’d just been joking about how, four months ago, you were worried that your entire industry was doomed. It just looked really grim. But now, you’re talking to me between appointments, because it’s turned out that you’re extremely busy. Does that mean that, overall, tourism has actually ended up having a good year in Ontario?

Laurie Marcil: I think it depends on where you are in the province. In southern Ontario, we have lodges — hunting or fishing lodges. We have resorts; we have vacation properties. In the southern part of the province, they’re getting customers. This goes up to the north of the Muskoka region. We’re getting guests there. What we're finding now is that as you move farther west or farther north, those establishments are having a very difficult time getting business. They can only access the domestic market. That’s the whole game right now. No one is flying abroad for their vacation. Northern and western Ontario always drew a lot of tourists from abroad, mainly the United States. That’s a big challenge.

What we are seeing pretty consistently everywhere is owners and operators saying that what they're seeing is longer-term rentals for overnight campsites or resorts. The guests that come stay longer. Normally they would come for, like, two or three days or just over a weekend — the weekend warriors. Now they're seeing a lot longer stays, which is very interesting. But as we move north, and particularly as we move northwest, it’s pretty scary. They really were dependent on U.S. customers, and that’s gone.

Gurney: What are those businesses in the northern and western areas?

Marcil: Some are cottage rentals and campsites and resorts, like in the southern areas. But there’s also a lot more fishing and hunting in the more remote areas. The farther you go, the more important hunting and fishing become. We’re talking $400 million dollar industries. Fishing is absolutely massive. People don’t realize that. But it’s just a huge industry and draw for tourists. It’s so important. We are getting new domestic clients. People who’ve been cooped up in their homes are trying fishing. They’re discovering how great it is, and they’re teaching their kids.

Gurney: I’m hoping my kids don’t realize that we never put hooks on their lines, because that was, like, an hour of distraction for them right there. Can I fact-check something here? You’re describing the northern and western areas. And I’m sure for your purposes, that would have a specific meaning — but am I right to assume that we’re sort of saying that the dividing line between the areas that are getting business and the ones that aren’t, that are too remote, is pretty much determined by whether you’re an easy drive from Toronto?

Marcil: I think that’s the case, yeah. Travel distance is a huge concern. Some of the more remote areas are used to operating as fly-in businesses. People would fly from the U.S. or other areas in Canada. That market is really struggling. Meanwhile, millions of people in the Greater Toronto Area are looking for things to do close to home, and they’re driving out into the country to find it. So the stuff that’s in relatively easy reach of Toronto is doing well. That stuff that isn’t, isn’t. One thing I’ll mention, though, is that the radius around Toronto is surprisingly large. It seems to only really peter out after about, say, a six-hour drive.

Gurney: Wow. That’s actually a lot. Like, that’s a very generous circle around Toronto’s population. I’d have thought three, maybe four hours. But I guess that might also explain those longer stays. You’ve come a long way.

Marcil: Right. Normally, I’d think it’s more three or four hours. That’s what people would have thought of as a reasonable drive. That gets you up past North Bay. But right now, it seems to keep going as far as Sault Ste. Marie. That’s sort of the rough line. And it’s a shame. There’s a lot of great stuff to do beyond that. But it’s proving really hard to get people to those places.

Gurney: When we first spoke, you told me about how a lot of these businesses have fixed costs. Real-estate costs, or costs on equipment like planes and boats. And these are good assets, but the owners needed cash flow to carry the costs. For the more remote businesses, how are they surviving?

Marcil: Some of the federal support programs have helped people, of course. A lot of the acronym programs! But there’s also help from the federal government, the FedNor program, and also the Ontario government is helping. But these are loans. They’ll keep people alive for a year, but unless they can get their businesses back, they won’t be able to pay the loan off. The news is telling us that we can’t get the border open for months — maybe not until next year. That’s really scary for our people. They need U.S. customers. This is a challenge, and we are worried about the future.

Gurney: With the customers you are getting, mostly people coming out of Toronto, you had mentioned they’re trying new things. They’re bringing the kids for their first fishing trip. Since you’re drawing a different customer, are you seeing different behaviours?

Marcil: Yeah, we have noticed that. I’m hearing from operators that they’d normally draw fishers, say. And these people were coming to fish. That’s what they were there for, fishing was their thing. But now people are coming up with a whole family. So yeah, they fish, but then they also want to know where they can eat. What else to do in the area. It’s a more all-around vacation. Fishing is part of it, but they want to do more. This is a different market for our guys, but it’s also a new experience for the guests. They’re getting out of their house after months of lockdown. They’re going someplace with no Wi-Fi. [laughs] It’s a new experience for everyone.

Gurney: Something I’ve heard from people in southern Ontario, within an easy drive of Toronto, is that they’re actually having a better-than-normal year. I don’t mean to rub salt in anyone’s wounds if they’re more remote and struggling. But geography is a huge player here. If you have a recreational business, and you’re anywhere near Toronto, you are packed. I’m talking the traditional cottage-country areas in the Muskokas and the Kawarthas, but also areas like the Niagara region and also Prince Edward County. I know a lot of your business is in northern areas, but you still have lots in the south. What are you hearing?

Marcil: No, I agree with you. Some of these Torontonians might have gone into the U.S. for their trips in the past. They’d go to Florida or Vegas. They’re used to having some kind of a vacation every year. But they're not able to cross that border. And with some of the economic pain, maybe their budget is tighter. So they decide to take something closer to home, but something that is a different environment entirely. And what’s a better local vacation than someplace on a lake? So yes, I’m hearing from people in that region around Toronto, and they are having banner years, even though they lost May and part of June. The year’s looking fantastic. Their season is going longer, too. They've got bookings right through the end of September.

Gurney: I don’t mean to inject some fatalism into this, but we obviously have worries about a second wave. No one knows what’s coming. What’s on your radar for the next few months?

Marcil: Liquidity. Liquidity for operators who are unable to get any revenue generated by themselves through being able to host guests. Or those who aren’t getting enough guests. Some of these places are getting small groups, but it's hardly even going to pay for the overhead that you've got just to have those two vacation groups. And so those are the guys that I'm really working on. I'm really trying to help. We're trying to press the government and show them that there are still people in need. Just because we've been able to open doesn't mean we're in recovery. And this is going to have a trickle effect on all of those other businesses. Like the gas stations, the restaurants, the local hardware store, the grocery stores. Until we're at the point where that border is open, for parts of Ontario, it's going to be very, very, very challenging to the businesses, and I really worry about their future.

Gurney: That’s a good point. It’s a shame to end on a down note, but that’s true.

Marcil: We don’t have to end on a down note. I want to mention something else. Have you heard about the Red Lake fire?

Gurney: Vaguely. I know what you’re referring to. A community in northwestern Ontario had a major forest fire nearby.

Marcil: Right. A huge fire, very near to the community. Thousands of people had to be evacuated in the middle of a pandemic. And all in that region, our operators, people with resorts with open beds or cottages that weren’t rented, we offered those beds to the families. We got a lot of people into very comfortable shelters while the fire was brought under control. They finally got some rain, and the evacuees can go back — but for days there, it was our people volunteering their time and their facilities. And making meals and doing laundry. And doing it for free. We were happy to take care of those people. It was the right thing to do. People should know that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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