Optimism in short supply among Island tourist operators in the time of pandemic

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MANITOULIN – The tourism industry on Manitoulin Island has seen its share of bumps in the road over the 50-odd years that Nancy Leeson, operator of The Wigwam Gift Shop and Motel in South Baymouth, has been in business, but this season is different. “It (the COVID-19 pandemic) hasn’t really affected us yet,” she said when contacted by The Expositor on Monday. “We don’t normally start up until the ferry starts running. Now the ferry start is delayed and we don’t really know when it will start up again, so everything is up in the air.”

Ms. Leeson said that her store has already placed a hold on shipments from her suppliers. She said they have been very understanding. “There’s no point in them shipping us stuff,” she chuckled ruefully, “there won’t be any money coming in to pay for it.”

The ripple effect has cascaded through the local economy.

A number of events have already announced suspension, including a planned Great Lakes Cruising Club Rendezvous visit to Little Current in July. Rendezvous organizer Roland Aubé sent the following message to The Expositor on Monday. “The Great Lakes Cruising Club, in view of the coronavirus pandemic, has decided to cancel their boating rendezvous scheduled in Little Current July 11-15. We wish to thank those who have offered their services or otherwise made our members feel welcome in Little Current and on Manitoulin Island. We feel it would be too dangerous for everyone to risk this event in these difficult circumstances. GLCC’ers have a close connection with Manitoulin Island and the North Channel. We hope everyone stays well. We will be back. Stay safe.”

Last month, organizers of Bluegrass in the Country, the biggest fundraiser of the year for Manitoulin Special Olympics, also cancelled its June event.

Corey Stacinski, manager of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current noted that they have already lost the better part of $500,000 and are stripped down to a skeleton crew. 

“Our restaurant and banquet facilities are shut down,” he said. “The only thing keeping us going at all are essential workers and some construction crews. We normally would be ramping up with 78 staff getting ready for the summer season, instead we are operating with nine.” Those nine staff have been trying to cope with drastically increased sterilizing regimes that include 72 hour pauses between occupancies and laundering of all soft materials in a room, as well as wiping down any common areas still in operation with sanitizers. Room occupancy has dropped to 14 rooms Monday to Thursday where “it should normally be closer to 35 or 40.”

Environmental scientist Al Douglas may be more familiar to Islanders in that role now, but he is also a former chair of the Manitoulin Tourism Association and the owner of Kagawong’s Hide Away Lodge—his take on the COVID-19 impact on the tourism business was succinct. “It’s crazy,” he said. “Of course for everyone the first concern is health and safety, but the economic impact will be insane.”

Mr. Douglas noted that while Hide Away Lodge, a business that caters to short- and long-term summer vacationers, has yet to decide whether they will be opening at any time in the near future, his prognosis was grim. “We are 90 percent, no, make that 95 percent certain with what we are being told by health authorities and the government; I don’t see us being able to open in time to salvage the business.” (Note: for scientists the 95 percentile is the Holy Grail of certainty.)

“When you look at the way that people mix when they are at the lodge, everything that they do at the lodge, you can’t effectively censure that,” he said. “As to when this is all over, will people come rushing back? We don’t know.”

The challenge will be severe for an industry that typically needs to make it or break it in a short season. “We have to support 12 months of bills with a three-month window to bring in revenue,” he said.

Still, Mr. Douglas said that he understands the need for distancing and he hopes that all resorts will work together on this.

“From my perspective we need to all be on the same page,” he said. “We don’t need one or two mavericks deciding to open up before it is safe in the hopes of cashing in on a sudden rush of demand.”

Mr. Douglas noted that the health of the entire Island’s business community largely depends on the tourism industry. “All of our businesses are going to suffer,” he said. “Not just those that are in lodging. People need to think really hard about how we are going to tackle this challenge going forward. It’s really important we all put our heads together and listen.”