Tourism sector rallies for support

Ken Kellar

Tourist camp owner and operators are coming together this week in an effort to have their voices heard by the government.

The event is the Tourism Matters NWO Rally, and it is being held at Fort Vermilion in Vermilion Bay this Saturday, June 13 from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m.

The goal, according to rally co-organizer Steve Smith, who is also the owner/operator of Sunset Country Adventures, is to have the government listen to camp owners and operators who say they are in trouble.

“What we want to get is an answer from the government on what the plan is for all of the resorts in the area,” Smith said.

“Right now all we’ve been offered is a wage subsidy which helps nobody because we’re not running. You’re not going to hire people and pay them when you’re not operating, you know what I mean? The other thing they’ve offered us is a $40,000 loan, which for some businesses would cover two weeks of bills or a month of bills and that’s it.”

While the rally was already in the planning stages and scheduled for June 13 before the provincial government made the announcement last week that camp operators would be allowed to reopen, Smith notes that just reopening camps in the area doesn’t solve the problems that owners are facing.

“Ninety per cent of people’s business in the summer is that American cash injection which stimulates our economy for the entire year,” he explained.

“This is a $34-billion industry, it’s bigger than forestry, mining and agriculture combined, and so what’s happened in the last week is they’ve deemed us essential all of a sudden and told us we can run Canadians. But primarily we don’t run Canadians.”

With a large portion of the business serving American tourists, and the international border between Canada and the United States still closed, Smith notes that an unreliable line of communication from the government has caused some hesitancy among camp owners when it even comes to booking Canadians in place of their regular customers.

“It’s good we can run some people but the book is already full so the hardest part for us is we’re double-booking if we bring Canadians in,” he said.

“They gave us 11 hours notice that we could run last week. What if they do that with the border? Now we’re double-booked with Canadians and Americans. It’s just a nightmare. We just need clarity and we need some kind of a system.”

Smith stressed that the rally is not meant to pressure the government to reopen the border, but rather communicate to the province that camp owners are feeling the crunch of bills looming on a severely reduced income, and want clearer communication and some help from the government that goes further than the wage subsidies and small loans on offer so far.

“We’re not pushing to get the border open, that’s not our fight,” Smith said.

“But if they’re not going to open the border at least tell us, ‘the border’s closed until minimum September 1’ or something like that, not dangle it month by month by month, because we’re trying to re-plan every month for the next month. If the border is going to stay closed, give us a long-range to when the earliest it’s going to open so we can plan the rest of our summers. Some guys will shut everything down and go get a job. Right now we’re dangling.”

The rally itself, then, is an opportunity for fellow camp owners and operators and the public to show their support and ask the government to step in with the supports they need. Smith noted that even though the event is scheduled to take place outside, the health pandemic still continues and organizers have taken steps to ensure that the event is as safe as possible.

“We’re going to try to social distance the best we can there, we’ve got lots of space,” he said.

“People are going to sign a waiver as they walk in that they’re going to do their best to social distance and be aware of their surroundings. We don’t want to come across as irresponsible in what we’re trying to do, we want to respect the rules and the laws in place and we’re not going to be sitting there yelling ‘open the border’ or nothing. The whole idea is we need a dialogue, we need funding to ensure we’re all here next year so we can continue business as usual.”

While Smith said he didn’t want to reveal much of what would be happening –he alleged that some individuals were looking to “get ahead of what we’re doing” – he did say the event would be “epic” and has been seeing support from some big players.

“We’ve got a lot of support from the U.S.,” he said.

“As well, the All-Canada Show has thrown us money. It’s going to get out there. There’s a couple midwest outdoors channels that are going to be talking about it, a couple of celebrities that are going to be Facebooking it, just so that even our clients across the border know that we’re fighting for our industry.”

Smith has since met with Kenora MP Eric Melillo, who called on the federal government to “provide stronger support and more clarity for seasonal industries” in a Facebook post, which is in line with what Smith said they were after from the different levels of government.

“We don’t want it to look like we’re blaming them for forgetting about us,” he said.

“What we want from the government is a committee, to sit down them and come up with meaningful supports for us, whether it’s some kind of loan that’s forgivable or some kind of money that we charge an extra 3% COVID-19 tax for the next three years to pay them back or whatever. Everybody’s in a different scenario too, any kind of reasonable funding we can get at would be based on each business, because there are camps that are bought and paid for five times over, but then there are camps that are in their first year, they’ve got a brand new mortgage of close to $1-million with no income. I mean, we’re all in business, we all took a risk, but this risk is out of our control.”

While Vermilion Bay is relatively central to the region, it is a distance to drive, especially for those who are not along the Trans-Canada, but Smith says any way to show support of their requests is appreciated.

“We’ve had a lot of people offer money to help pay for porta-potties and water [for the rally],” he said.

“We’re trying to do it the least expensive as possible because nobody’s making any money. But just sharing it on Facebook, joining our page, writing their MPs and MPPs and Doug Ford. We’ve got all the links on our pages, how to easy access write letters to government officials. We’ve had probably close to 300 letters written in the last weeks.”

One way or another though, something has to give.

“The wolves are at our doorsteps, we need money to pay our bills, and nobody wants to borrow money,” Smith said.

“The number one rule in business is you don’t borrow money with interest to pay off borrowed money with interest.”