Survey shows impact of border closure

Natali Trivuncic
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

While businesses small and large will soon be up and running as we near closer to the end of the second lockdown, businesses along the border that rely on American tourists continue to suffer without a plan from provincial and federal government.

Curtis Handberg, owner of Campbell’s Cabins, located on Lac La Croix in Fort Frances, said he has not had business from May to September 2020. Handberg said his clientele is mostly made up of American tourists.

“I’m a fishing resort and we’re only open from May until the end of September,” Handberg said. “So from 2020 to currently, no business and plus not knowing when the border is going to open, you can’t take deposits to help you through the winter.”

Handberg said the only thing that has kept them afloat is their convenience store where they mostly service the local First Nation community with basic groceries, gas and cabin maintenance.

Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario (NOTO), said many border businesses have been facing the same struggles. In an effort to collect more data to bring to the provincial and federal governments attention to border businesses, NOTO released their COVID-19 Winter Lockdown Impact Survey earlier this month.

The goal of the survey was to reinforce NOTO’s request to add tourism operators to the eligibility list for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant, as well as the losses the industry faces. The survey focuses on the winter revenues lost as a result of the recent lockdown and stay-at- home order, as well as the likelihood of replacing bookings with essential workers and those in need of housing during the emergency period. The data was collected between Jan. 20 to Jan. 24 of this year.

According to the data collected from their survey, there have been 3869 bookings lost as a result of the province-wide shut down and stay-at-home order. These bookings account for over $4,178,900 in lost revenue by the resource-based tourism industry, with an average loss of $45,922 per operator.

“I think that there are things that we can do now that will allow people to come across the border in a safe way,” Marcil said. “We’re trying to communicate [to government] that our businesses, our destinations will work with our guests to make sure that they go from point A to point B.”

Handberg said it was not easy to access a domestic market because the road that accesses the resort goes through a First Nation community which had been gated all summer. He said this stalled any chance of him getting Canadian tourists. Handberg adds that a plan to reopen the border from the government would help him plan for the upcoming season.

“You can’t wait for a deadline to show up and then if it doesn’t then you have invested things and you could be out a whole bunch of money that you could have needed to get through the rest of the year,” Handberg said. “It feels like we’re hung up to dry.”

Marcil said they know the variants and vaccine rollout are a factor, but they want the government to think outside the box and plan for reopening the border.

“We know now that they can only make these legislative moves, in 30 day increments, but still, give us an idea of what the benchmarks they’re looking for in order to even consider reopening the border,” Marcil said.

Tom Pearson, owner of Camp Narrows Lodge in Fort Frances for 36 years, said his last guests were Oct. 12, 2019.

Pearson said since then, they have “just been scraping along.” Pearson said he has not been eligible for most government funding because his business does not meet the qualifications.

“We seem to be getting left out of a lot of them because we’re seasonal,” Pearson said. “I don’t know how anyone that just bought a camp would be lasting.”

Both Pearson and Handberg only funding he received from the government at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. They received a $40,000 loan that if paid back in three years, only $30,000 had to be paid back.

Pearson said it would be reasonable to have American tourists go straight to their cabin and groceries and other necessities are provided by the resort so tourists do not go into town.

“We’ll do anything to open up,” Pearson said. “They can try all they want; Canadians aren’t going to spend what the Americans spend.”

Pearson said he already has reservations from American tourists for the coming season and would have plenty of business if the borders opened up. He adds that he is remaining cautiously optimistic for the summer.

“All they got to do it open [the border] and we will have no more complaints,” Pearson said. “We’ll be full again but it’s just killing us now.”