It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but when the U.S. is seeing spikes in positive COVID-19 tests (though deaths have tapered), it’s difficult for Canada to open its border and safely allow Americans into the country, though it is possible once the U.S. makes it through this second surge. Iceland has broken through as a shining example, hosting international travelers since June by using a rigorous testing program, saving its tourism industry from financial peril. There have been pleas made by Canadian Travel and Tourism, which generates $74 billion and employs 1.8 million people, to allow healthy Americans into Canada, as U.S. citizens make up two-thirds of international tourists in Canada. But so far Prime Minster Justin Trudeau hasn’t budged.
Shutting Down the Yukon procedure in place for opening the border, only a projected date that keeps getting moved back, which has been a serious frustration for outfitters. It has left them in limbo, unsure if their outfits will continue to tread water with pre-COVID profits, or ultimately drown. Alberta’s Professional Outfitters Society reported guides in the province have lost $68 million in revenue since the pandemic began in March. Two thousand people are also jobless due to the lack of clients.
ODL talked with some guides, to find out how outfitters across Canada are coping with the border closure, how they are navigating these strange and difficult times, and if they expect their businesses to survive the pandemic.
A major hurdle in B.C. for guides is the phased re-opening plan. Right now, the province is in Phase 3 of 4. The U.S.-Canada border would re-open in Phase 4 but for that to occur, one of three things has to happen: a vaccine, community immunity, or broad and/or successful treatments. The first two aren’t likely to happen until 2021 at the earliest, and the third has a long way to go on the U.S. side of the border. It will certainly help business if guide Rachel Ahtila (at Backcountry BC and Beyond in B.C.) can get more Canadian hunters in the mountains, but that’s also up in the air at this point because of last-minute rescheduling and logistics. Some Canadian airlines are either shut down or flying at limited capacities, and travel between many of the provinces is limited.
Once the border is open, that will present another set of obstacles for outfitters. There will likely be testing procedures and other restrictions placed on international travelers. It’s near impossible to prepare for because the Canadian government hasn’t been forthcoming with a structured agenda to re-open the border. They continue to extend the closure month-by-month with little or no notice before announcing the potential re-opening dates. And the recent climb in U.S. COVID-19 cases—and Trudeau’s refusal to visit the White House in early July—doesn’t bode well for open travel in the immediate future.
“It’s going to be hard to get clients to hunting camps because there are so many unknowns with the continuing border closure,” Ahtila said. “We also have a considerable amount of gear ready to go if we get a green light, but we are planning to work with a reduced staff for the time being. It’s not going to be easy for anyone in the tourism industry.”
Steve and Debbie Overguard have been operating Alberta Adventures for nearly four decades, guiding clients for moose, bear, wolves, deer, cougar, and fishing. Ninety percent of their business comes from U.S. patrons, and Steve Overguard estimates that since the border closure, their business has taken a $140,000 hit. They hosted a few Canada residents for fishing trips at their cabin in the northern part of the province, near the Northwest Territories border, but had no spring bear hunting clients. If the border doesn’t open by September, keeping the guide service going will be tough.
“We don’t want a second wave of COVID-19,” Overguard says, “but I think there are ways to control it. The federal government just doesn’t seem that interested in helping us right now. I could take $40,000 in stimulus, but with the border closed, I can’t host clients, so I’m not sure if I can pay it back.”
Overguard is willing to follow tight restrictions and leap over any hurdles to get clients in camp. He thinks there are ways to safely bring hunters into the country and has been working to find solutions, though most of those ideas have fallen on deaf ears.
“I’ll turn a 10-day trip into a two-week trip so hunters can adhere to the quarantine restrictions,” Oveguard says. “I’ll stand outside the plane with a thermometer and take their temperature. It might cost me more money, but at least we can exist.”
Luke Scherders runs Wingfeather Outfitters, guiding clients for waterfowl and turkeys in Ontario. His spring turkey clientele was down by more than 50 percent and he estimates losing between $30,000 and $50,000 in profits. It would have been more if not for so many Ontario hunters honoring their reservations. Scherders isn’t optimistic about the border opening for waterfowl season, which starts in September across much of Canada. He says most Canadians he talks to think the border will remain closed, maybe through the end of the year. There’s too much risk in allowing Americans to cross the border.
Scherders only runs 6 to 10 hunters a day (two groups maximum), and has a few other businesses to keep him financially sound, so if there isn’t a duck season this year, presumably he can pick it back up in 2021 because he doesn’t have a huge operation. He does see potential problems for larger outfitters, particularly ones that rely heavily on summer clients, like fishing camps.
“There’s a major fishing outfitter I know that typically runs 15 guides every day all summer long,” Scherders says. “He’s had three clients total this summer. You go from running 15 trips a day to a total of three clients, it’s gonna hurt.”
“If you have private access or guide in the States, this could be a year to charge a premium, because so many hunters are likely not coming to Canada,” Schereders says. “I’ve already heard about American outfitters who typically come up here, setting up shop in North Dakota [and other states] to recoup some of the money they would have made in Canada. It could get interesting when the season opens in the States.”
Scherders has been taking deposits from clients (as many other outfitters have), but his guess is that he will be holding onto those checks and rolling them into next year. It’s nice to have some cash on hand now, but it also means that he will only make half of what he could have in 2021, because the deposit covers the first half of the total payment. He also breeds Labs, and still has four pups he can’t get to U.S. hunters due to the border closure.
Midnight Sun Outfitters has been operated by Jessie Young’s family for nearly four decades. Young and her brother now run the guide service in the Yukon, hunting sheep, caribou, moose, bear, and wolves. They also host a fishing camp, which will open to Canadian residents this summer, and wilderness tours, which are on the schedule as well.
The Yukon border opened to Canadians July 1, which will make it possible to guide a small amount of clients and make a bit of money (there are quarantine restrictions for residents from provinces other than B.C., the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut). Before July, the entire Yukon was shutdown. There was no outside travel allowed. You had to be a Yukon resident in order to enter, and agents were patrolling the border heavily to enforce that mandate. The Yukon is a hub for international travel and tourism—there are many direct flights from Europe into Whitehorse—and officials were concerned the robust tourism that existed before COVID shutdowns might have caused cases to spike even after restrictions were put into place.