Tourist camps still irked by border hassles

With the 2005 tourism season just getting under way, district outfitters and businesses once again are looking forward to the annual influx of American tourists.
But that influx is looking smaller than it should because of several outstanding problems from previous years that remain a irritation.
At least that’s the opinion of Doug Reynolds, executive director of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters (NOTO). He said business is holding its own so far this year, but things could be better.
“I’ve been hearing the usual mixed reviews,” Reynolds said Tuesday from his office in North Bay. “Things are uneven and spotty.”
Reynolds said things are somewhat better in Northwestern Ontario than down east, due to the good fishing and hunting opportunities offered here, but the tourism industry, as a whole, has not yet completely recovered from the fallout of 9/11.
“In general, the recovery in Northwestern Ontario has been quicker because the best of our product is there,” he noted, adding there still are some contributing factors to the slow recovery.
One of those is the dramatic change in the exchange rate between the loonie and U.S. greenback.
Reynolds said the Canadian dollar has strengthened by 20 percent against its American counterpart over the past year or so, and that has cut significantly into the profit margins of operators since they cannot afford to suddenly increase their rates for fear of driving away business.
“Twenty percent is a substantial hit,” he remarked. “Nobody was ready for the speed it changed at.”
As a result, tourist operators in adjacent jurisdictions like Minnesota and Wisconsin are seizing the opportunity to bolster their own tourist attractions.
“The fishing there is pretty good, too—not as good as it is here, but they are competing aggressively to take advantage,” Reynolds warned.
But the biggest obstacle, by far, has nothing to do with economics, he argued. The greatest impediment to more cross-border business is the reception U.S. tourists receive at the border, particularly here in Fort Frances, where Americans are being turned back because of offences committed in some cases many years ago.
“Over 90 percent [of the complaints] I hear are from Fort Frances,” Reynolds claimed.
The majority of offences resulting in denial of entry involve impaired driving convictions.
But Reynolds acknowledged Canada Customs is not solely responsible for the perceived anti-American, anti-tourist bias.
“There’s a local cultural perception, too,” he stressed. “Some people [in the district] seem to want to keep the resources to themselves and resent sharing them with outsiders.
“People don’t see how much of a contribution tourism makes to the local economy,” he added.
“What it comes down to is do you want to keep the fishing to yourself or do you want to keep your wife working at Canadian Tire. You can’t have both,” he argued.
Tom Pearson, president of the North Western Ontario Tourism Association and owner/operator of Camp Narrows Lodge on Rainy Lake, has seen first-hand and through complaints from NWOTA members the consequences of the sometimes heavy-handed attitude by Canada Customs officials in Fort Frances.
“Most people are down for sure,” Pearson said Tuesday. “We’re down at least 25 percent and it starts at the border. It’s one of our major obstacles in Northwestern Ontario.”
Pearson said the problem is one of perception. “When one person is turned back, he tells 1,000 people and they think twice about coming here,” he explained.
“It’s all about bad attitude.”
One issue that strikes a particularly sour note is the waiver. Pearson said when people are confronted with old indiscretions (usually impaired driving), they often are subjected to interrogations that can go on for several hours, at the conclusion of which they are allowed one-time entry into Canada if they agree to pay a $200 fee.
This, Pearson says, amounts to extortion.
“They just think they are being extorted and so would I,” he charged. “The perception is, if I pay $200, I get in. That’s what’s happening every single day here [in Fort Frances].”
Pearson said the money from these waiver fees goes to the Treasury Board in Ottawa and has no benefit to the local economy. On the contrary, it is having a damaging effect instead.
“There shouldn’t be a fee at all,” he stressed. “We’re all feeling it up here and we’re not getting any new customers.”
In fact, even regular customers who have been vacationing here for years are now being caught up in the Customs net.
“Talk to Dale LaBelle,” Pearson suggested. “He had his first group stopped this year.”
Indeed he did.
“We had our first crew come in on May 8,” explained LaBelle, who has owned and operated LaBelle’s Birch Point Camp on Northwest Bay (Rainy Lake) since 1981.
“One guy had a DWI in 1958 and they held him at the border for two-and-a-half hours,” he said Tuesday. “After that, they wanted $200 to let him through, but they wouldn’t take a $100 bill, so he had to use his Visa card.
“He didn’t want to do that and explain it to his wife,” La Belle added.
LaBelle went on to say this customer is in his 70s and has been coming up at least twice a year for more than 20 years. But he doesn’t know if he will be back this year.
Furthermore, this was not an isolated incident.
“This happens every year,” LaBelle stressed. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
LaBelle noted he has discussed the matter with Canada Customs officials on several occasions over the past few years but to no avail. In fact, he has become so frustrated, he even has suggested the government close the border completely here to avoid offending more people.
LaBelle then cited the example of another regular customer from Minneapolis who used to bring his employees up twice each summer until the day about five years ago when he, too, was stopped for an old impaired driving charge dating back to when he was 18.
The man was so angry, he turned around and took his party back. LaBelle said he later phoned to say he would never come back to Canada.
“That one party cost me $10,000,” LaBelle remarked. “That was over five years ago, so I guess it has cost me $50,000 in business.
“Look, I can understand if he had three impaired charges over the last four years,” he reasoned. “I wouldn’t want him, either, but this is just stupid.
“What makes me so mad is we try to run a good camp and we get this,” he fumed.
LaBelle went on to say his business probably will do all right this year because his is largely a repeat business, but he has laid of one full-time employee and he has heard other operators have done likewise.
“This hurts everybody,” he concluded.
According to the Ontario tourism information office here, the number of visitors is down somewhat there this year from previous ones.
But that comes as no surprise to supervisor Jane Johnstone, who summed up the problem in three words, “Location, location, location.”
Positioned as it is across the street from Canada Customs building, the tourism centre has been under fire for some time because it is sometimes difficult to access for new arrivals.
However, Johnstone did acknowledge the tourism offices in Rainy River and Pigeon River, which also fall under her jurisdiction, are reporting lower numbers of visitors this season, too.
By contrast, the office located at the Ontario-Manitoba border near Kenora is still seeing many visitors. Johnstone surmised the difference may be due to the fact most people who frequent that office are domestic travellers, not visitors from the States.
Likewise, statistics from Canada Customs here indicate a slight drop in traffic over the international bridge up until the end of April compared to last year.
Acting superintendent Doug Cuthbertson said Tuesday the statistics for May are not available yet, though he acknowledged there was a slight decline in the numbers over the just-concluded U.S. Memorial Day long weekend from last year.
However, he attributed the decline more to the poor weather than any other factor.
“I think we’re on track for a fairly normal year,” Cuthbertson predicted.