Local camps and lodges: have they recovered from the pandemic yet?

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

Doug and Kathy Johnson have owned Hideaway Lodge on Clearwater (Burditt) Lake since 1992. Three years ago, COVID-19 led to borders shutting down non-essential travel, meaning the lodge had no guests.

“We were devastated,” says Kathy. “We’re still behind the eight ball.”

The Johnsons are in their 60s and were looking to retire.

“Now we have to work until we’re a lot older just to make up for those two years,” says Kathy. “Our whole retirement scheme is all blown away.”

Tourism’s reliance on American residents meant the pandemic hit the industry hard.

“Ironically, what was our strength became our weakness,” says Gerry Cariou, executive director for Ontario’s Sunset Country Travel Association. “When the border closed, we went from hero to zero.”

Many local camps have nearly, if not 100 per cent, American customers.

“It was pretty devastating,” says Dale La Belle, who has owned Birch Point Camp for nearly 42 years. “We had no business at all.”

Thankfully, since La Belle’s has been around so long, he says he was able to dip into savings to stay afloat.

Robert Tolen, who’s owned Vic & Dot’s Camp since 2014, also didn’t have any business while the border was closed.

“It was frustrating on a variety of levels,” says Tolen. “Basically 18 months of not making any money is a stressful situation.”

Both Tolen and La Belle noted that even if guests aren’t coming, the bills still are.

“That’s a big hole to dig yourself out of,” says Cariou. “There was a lot of damage done.”

Helliar’s Resort in Nestor Falls had it rough as well. Owner Wayne Helliar says all they had was a little retail.

“It was just horrible,” he says. “We never knew what was gonna happen.”

Jessie Baker’s parents own Cedar Island Lodge on Pipestone Lake. Going into the pandemic, the lodge was their only source of income.

“It was a struggle,” says Baker. “We were pretty broke. It was quite an overwhelming time.”

“You’re coming off three years of essentially blocking the border,” says Cariou. “It had a huge, devastating impact.”

But since all Canadian border restrictions lifted on October 1, 2022, lodges are preparing for and experiencing their biggest year in a few.

Cariou says he optimistically estimates Sunset Country camps to reach about 70–75 per cent of their pre-pandemic revenue this year.

His hope for the region won’t likely be far off — since border restrictions ended this past fall, the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada show American resident crossing numbers are ~73 per cent of what they were in 2019-20.

If that trend continues, Canada will have about 1.5 million more American visitors this summer compared to last. That being said, even if that were the case, the country would still be over 2.7 million U.S. visitors shy of its pre-pandemic number from 2019.

And although Fort Frances and Rainy River crossing numbers have been less than half of what they were in 2019, indications seem to show that guests are returning quickly to Rainy River District camps.

Matt Goldamer took ownership of Sunset Country Outfitters on Campfire Island last February, and has yet to experience a “normal” year. Still, he’s noticed business picking up.

“It seems like everyone is super keen on getting back to Canada,” he says.

Arthur Perchaliuk has owned Pipestone Lodge for 29 years and says the lifted restrictions means a lot more customers are returning.

“This year is gonna be good,” he says.

Johnson from Hideaway Lodge says bookings are very close to pre-pandemic levels.

“People are travelling again and that makes me happy,” she says.

La Belle from Birch Point Camp says this year’s numbers should nearly match those from 2019.

Since pandemic border measures ended, Tolen says he’s very fortunate that Vic & Dot’s is very close to full capacity.

Baker says Cedar Island is gearing up for its busiest season yet.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “We needed that after two years of nothing going on here.”

“It doesn’t surprise me camps closer to the border do better,” says Cariou.

His estimate of 70–75 per cent is based on all of Sunset Country, not just the Rainy River District and nearby.

Border-adjacent camps may fare better since Americans may not want to travel too much farther north. Cariou says inflation and gas prices may affect people’s economic confidence. And since travel is a discretionary expenditure, some folks may be choosing to spend money elsewhere.

Another reason some Americans might not return is obliviousness — Cariou says Sunset Country Travel has hosted six sport shows this year to spread the word that the border is open. He estimated 30 per cent of the people he talked to had no idea restrictions had lifted.

Goldamer says most of his guests were still skeptical about crossing the border and didn’t realize the ArriveCAN requirement had ended.

Cariou says the informed Americans who have returned will generate a lot of word of mouth which will help bring people back. South of the border, he says some people will have to wait an hour and a half to launch their boats.

“That doesn’t happen here,” he says. “That’s why people travel to Canada.”

With 70,000 lakes in Sunset Country, most of them being big and largely free of people, Cariou expects Americans to return home raving about their adventures up north.

For that reason, he says he hopefully estimates Sunset Country camps to reach 90–100 per cent recovery next year. He says if somehow they haven’t fully recovered by 2025, they’ll be an exception to the rule.

And even though lodges compete for guests, Cariou says there’s an informal camaraderie and shared experience.

“What’s good for your competition is good for you,” he says. “When everyone’s getting better, it helps pull the ship.”

Regarding accurate recovery numbers, Cariou says June will be a very telltale indicator since it’s such a hot month for fishing.

Memorial Day weekend is usually deemed the start of the season for American tourists, especially since walleye season opens a week prior.

“We have such a great outdoor product,” says Cariou. “Not just fishing and hunting, it’s the outdoors.”

A Sunset Country Travel survey from a number of years back found that fishing was the second-top choice for why people visited Sunset Country. Number one was lakes and scenery.