By ANDREW WAREING
For many tourism operators in Timiskaming, 2003 started on a sour note and many in the industry claim business has just continued downhill from there.
Sean Mackey, first vice-president of the James Bay Frontier Travel Association and general manager of Quality Inn in New Liskeard, says this year has been particularly tough for local operators, many whom have noted a substantial drop in business.
“It started with the collapse of the Latchford bridge, which really hurt everyone’s winter season,” he says. “Now we have the SARS scare and American feelings about Canada’s non-involvement in the war in Iraq. We’ve definitely seen less Americans in the area.”
Francis Boyes, co-owner of Smoothwater Lodge in Temagami, agrees.
“Our business, like any other business, has been affected,” Boyes says. “Our international business is off. SARS has scared a lot of people away. They got the message from the media, which made it sound like SARS was out of control when it was really contained to only a few areas. Then there is the American resentment of Canada not getting involved in the war.”
Economics are also having an effect, he says, pointing out that a strengthened Canadian dollar has made it less economical for residents south of the border to come North. Many Canadians are also not doing much domestic travel this year, he says. These factors have forced him make adjustments and cutbacks in operations. He has postponed capital improvements to the business, reduced the number of staff he typically hires for the summer and cut back on supplies.
Bob Mackey, owner of Glen Aura motel and cottages, sums up the year as being “terrible” for the industry.
Mackey rents cottages and a motel on Highway 11B between Haileybury and New Liskeard on Lake Timiskaming. While the motel has been operating fairly steadily, the cottages, normally full at this time of year, have been mostly empty.
“I’ve been in the business 18 years and I’ve never seen a year like this,” he says. “I would say, right now, our bookings are down 60 per cent...I think a lot of it has to do with the media and their approach to things like SARS and West Nile virus. People are thinking they have less chance of catching something like West Nile in their own back yards than they do in cottage country.”
If there is a glimmer of hope, it comes from Cheminis Lodge near Kirkland Lake. The business is a new operation that is into its second season, and owner Bonnie Devine says her business has increased by about 25 per cent over the last year.
“I had 12 guys from Ohio who stopped here one night on their way to an outfitter’s camp and they didn’t seem too concerned about (West Nile),” says owner Devine. “Myself, I don’t know. Business is up over last year, but I was doing a lot of promoting down in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and most of the people I’ve had coming up have been from areas like Toronto, Hamilton and Woodstock.”
Boyes says the local travel industry is being hit by a combination of factors that no one has any control over, but predicts these conditions likely will not last long.