Operators hope for tourism rebound

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Following a slow start to the summer tourism season, Highlands operators are hoping the lifting of a six-week fire ban and improved air quality will bring more visitors to the region in coming months.

Corina Mansfield of Deep Roots Adventure recently started a conversation on the private Haliburton Highlands Tourism Stakeholder Group Facebook page.

Mansfield told The Highlander she’d been fearing “a tourism collapse” prior to the lifting of the fire ban July 12. At the time, she said her business revenue was down about 40 per cent from last summer.

However, she said it’s been more than just the fire ban and wildfire smoke.

“There are so many factors out of our control. We had a really cool, rainy start to the season. May and June were terrifyingly slow.

“Others are saying it’s the economy. I don’t know what it is but it feels like we’re being walloped from every direction.”

Mansfield conceded some tourism operators benefitted from COVID as visitors fled the city when they could not travel internationally.

Although she feels as though she is doing everything within her budget to bring people to the area, she said she had been struggling to cover payroll in July, which is virtually unheard of. While many in tourism rely on lines of credit in winter, they usually replenish the coffers in summer.

Sector won’t recover until 2025

Mansfield said she wondered if it was just her, since her business is in Harcourt, so did a Facebook page post. It came following a Saturday in July with just one walk-in customer. “Which was bonkers.”

She noted other operators said their numbers were also down by 40 per cent, including in downtown Haliburton, so, “it’s not just me but you want to share that people are doing well because hopefully that will indicate that things will get better.

“I like seeing people busy. A rising tide floats all boats. I’m really hoping that everybody picked up this week but it’s been kind of scary. It really felt like a tourism collapse.”

More international visitors

General manager of Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve Ltd., Tegan Legge, said it had been a slow start to the season. They had cancellations due to the fire ban and air quality. However, things are picking up, she said, “and it finally feels like summer is here.”

Legge added with a drop in domestic tourism, their hard work to get more international bookings is paying off.

“It is more important than ever to be working in travel trade and we are seeing the fruits of our labours over the last seven years, building relationships around the world along with Destination Canada and Destination Ontario,” she said.

“What would typically be a dozen or so direct bookings a year for international guests has resulted in more than 65 for just spring, summer and fall with more coming in weekly. Guests are coming from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, etc. and are booking accommodations for multiple nights, along with the canopy tour.”

Legge said they anticipate a busy season moving forward, especially once August hits and into the fall.

County weighs in

County tourism manager, Tracie Bertrand, said they’re hearing about a variety of different circumstances this tourism season.

She said many tourism stakeholders are reporting that international travel is up this year; some businesses are ahead of 2022 results; and some are comparing their 2023 numbers with a more realistic 2019, and indicating good results.

“With travel restrictions being lifted, domestic travel (which has been strong the last few years) has reportedly decreased as folks are eager to get back to their normal travel habits. This, in combination with increased interest rates and fear of a recession has seen some visitors putting a hold on their travel budgets,” Bertrand said.

She added a recent survey conducted by Nanos Research indicates more Canadians are planning on spending less on summer travel or putting their vacation plans on hold completely compared to previous years. Further, the tourism manager said research indicates the sector will not fully recover until at least 2025 or 2026.

Bertrand noted many businesses that received federal or provincial loans are still not able to begin repayment. The Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) is advocating for longer repayment options to help tourism businesses make it through this year.

Despite that, she said, “there are a lot of positive things to celebrate. We’ve seen many incredible partnerships form between businesses in Haliburton Highlands in the last year-and-a-half. There is still a lot of optimism. Our tourism stakeholders are resilient, creative, and innovative. Partnership, promotion and support of each other, product and experience development, and destination marketing is important as we move through this year and the next few years.”