Summer tourism predictions upbeat, mostly

MANITOULIN—The Expositor asked local tourism stakeholders to polish up their crystal balls and provide their best prognostication efforts as to how this summer’s tourist season will play out. The results were largely positive, but most proved to be reluctant seers, citing this cold winter as a wild card in predicting the start of the season

“I don’t know, we will have to see how it looks in the spring,” said Manitoulin Tourism Association president Ron Berti, recalling that last spring’s recalcitrant winds blew an ice pack into the path of the Chi-Cheemaun’s inaugural run of the season, delaying the start of its passage by a few days and the previous year’s late start due to low water. It is hard to predict how Mother Nature is going to come at you.

That being said, the low Canadian dollar will likely play an important role in bringing more American tourists to the North once again. “The dollar is an important factor,” agreed Mr. Berti, but he balked at assigning the same import to the recent drop in fuel prices.

“The price of gas is pretty volatile,” said Mr. Berti, adding that he would not want to hang his hat on fuel prices as a determining factor.

“The low dollar is definitely something that can help us,” said North Channel Marine Tourism Marketing Council Chair Stan Ferguson. “When you can stretch your dollar by 25 percent, that is something that people do consider.”

Mr. Ferguson noted that the low cost of fuel might play a positive role, but that the real driver would more likely be the current rebound in the economy south of the border and the relatively low exchange rate.

Susan Schrempf, CEO and president of Chi-Cheemaun ferry operators, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), was cautious regarding the ferry’s scheduled start date. “We are still on schedule,” she noted, but adding that the cold weather experienced this winter is reminiscent of the conditions that prevailed on the lake last spring. “We can’t predict how that is going to impact us this year.”

Luke Wassegijig, Wikwemikong Tourism manager and an Island resort operator himself, was also cautious in his predictions. “We are actually behind where we were this time last year (in bookings),” he said. “There are probably a lot of factors that are coming into play there.” Mr. Wassegijig said it is difficult to predict the year ahead solely on the basis of current bookings. “It is still very early and this winter has been so cold even down south that I don’t think people’s minds have really settled on summer yet,” he laughed. “Ask me again in a couple of weeks and I might have a better answer for you.” Mr. Wassegijig said that he would expect that the low Canadian dollar would bode well for increased tourism coming from the US.

“The low dollar may get people thinking about checking out more of what Canada has to offer,” he added.

That is a sentiment echoed by yacht charter operator Ken Blodgett of Gore Bay. “The exchange rate is a huge help to us,” he said. “That 26 percent will get more people looking at chartering with us.” But Mr. Blodgett also noted that it was too early to really gauge how the season will play out.

“People usually start booking next month or so,” he said.

Mr. Blodgett points to the Canadian HST as one of the culprits that helps to keep American tourists south of the border. “They don’t like our 13 percent tax,” he said. “Neither do we.” The difference in the exchange on the Canadian dollar helps to offset that value added tax impact.

The low fuel costs play less a part in his yacht business, said Mr. Blodgett. “It might have an impact on people who are running the big gas guzzlers,” he said, noting that does not describe his fleet. “We don’t use more than 2.2 gallons per hour,” he said. “We have mostly trawlers, not displacement boats. They typically only do about seven knots.”

The price of fuel might have an impact on vessels travelling from places like Bayport Marine in Midland, he said. “Because of the lower cost of fuel that might entice more people to come up,” he said. “I expect to see a marginal increase in Canadian boats.”

Mr. Blodgett agreed that the draw of the waters of the North Channel will also play a role in drawing people to the region. “It is incredible what is out there,” he said. Mr. Blodgett has 19 vessels in his fleet ready to serve the market, “power and sail, up to 50-feet,” he said.