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Tourism sector pleads for urgent help

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The Northern Ontario tourism sector is facing an uncertain future, with few signs of hope or help from the government.

“It feels like tourism has been left out in the cold, that we've been a bit forgotten,” said Brenda Ferris-Hyatt, of Hyatt's Manion Lake Camp.

The sector has been given little information from politicians, and no guidelines of what a potential reopen could look like, she said. “We don't seem to be getting discussed.”

Her season usually starts with the opening of walleye season, which is May 16 this year. Instead, her resort will sit empty until restrictions are lifted. Most of her clients have been understanding. Although many have cancelled, many others have pushed reservations into the late summer and early fall, hoping that rules will soften by then.

Ferris-Hyatt has her hopes on the border opening soon. She's sure she can run a safe operation with appropriate distancing. But she's torn between saving her business and supporting public health.

“We've just got to roll with it and hope for the best," she said, hoping that the issue comes onto the national and provincial radar soon. "You have to think, this is just northwestern Ontario, but this must be happening all over Canada. We rely pretty heavily on tourism across the country.”

Ferris-Hyatt isn't alone in her frustrations. The restrictions have been a source of alarm for camp owners across the region, who rely on a short tourist season - comprised mostly of Americans - to stay viable.

“The Pandemic measures are hitting all small businesses hard no matter where in Canada they are located but in our remote rural region, with a tourism base dependent on American travellers, we will be and are already being hit extremely hard," wrote Gerry Cariou, Executive Director, Ontario's Sunset Country Travel Association in an open letter on social media on April 24. "I know one small operator who has already had to forgo over $100,000.00 in lost revenues from ice fishing and spring hunting cancellations at his lodge. Nothing compared to the Hilton's losses I'm sure but to this individual and his family, these losses are devastating. Across the region, you can multiply those losses by 250X come the end of June and there may be nothing but ashes left behind where so many solid businesses once stood.”

That sentiment is echoed by Wayne Hellier, owner of Hellier's Resort and a board member of Sunset Country Travel Association. His resort would normally employ 10 people to run the fishing resort. Instead, he's running a skeleton crew of family to keep the gas station and convenience store open. He's hearing a lot of frustration and concern from across the sector. The lack of government assistance has been a particular cause for concern. The seasonal nature of most tourism businesses makes accessing government help particularly difficult, he said.

“A lot of them don't quality," he said "We're in a grey area.”

“I'm lucky. I can keep running with the gas and convenience indefinitely," he said. "There are some others who have bigger bills and mortgage payments. They're in a very difficult situation.”

One of those is Dave Werenko, owner of Marr's Perch Lake Lodge. He's owned his resort for only two years, making his debts high and assets low.

Even if he did qualify for the assistance programs offered by the government, “they wouldn't even cover my mortgage payments," he said. The wage subsidy program isn't useful either he said. "Why would I pay 25 per cent of a salary when there's nothing coming in to pay it with?”

Normally, upwards of 90 percent of his business is American tourists, who currently can't get across the border, with little sign of international tourists being allowed anytime soon.

“Things have to open up real quick for me to fulfill my financial obligations," he said. "Nothing stops. You have to pay. If you don't you lose what you have.”

He's hoping to salvage the summer, with local tourists and restaurant visitors. He doesn't have much choice.

“What else can I do? Close up and lose everything and live on the street?” he said.

Part of his frustration is the restriction on all camping and wilderness activities “I have five acres here. I get a few picnic tables spread out, we can stay safe. We have lots of room," he said "They're telling me I can't run my business, because it's not safe, but I can go into town and get job where I'd be surrounded by people. How does that make sense?”

Cariou, in his open letter, agreed with that sentiment.

“Restricting people from camping in the Ontario wilderness (we call it Crown Land Camping) is perhaps the worst example of the Ontario Government's overreach but so is the closure of boat launches, outdoor trails and other outdoor areas - all in the name of social distancing or safety - is simply going too far,” he wrote.

Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski has been working behind the scenes to shine a spotlight on the tourism industry. He feels issues are being addressed as they become urgent and speculates that as summer approaches, the tourism industry will take its turn as a priority, followed by financial and regulatory assistance. But he knows from discussions with camp owners that help is needed immediately.

“I understand they have considerable start-up costs,” he said.

He recently teamed up with northern MPs Charlie Angus and Eric Melillo, to write a tri-partisan letter to a number of ministries, to draw attention to the plight of tourism camps, First Nations tourism businesses and air supply providers.

For many camp owners, time is of the essence. Without help soon, many will be forced to close permanently.

“What a way to go," said Werenka. "I could lose everything. And for what?”

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