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Local resorts under a cloud of uncertainty as summer nears

'We have to move ahead as if we are going to be open,' says Fern Resort co-owner; It's unclear when resorts can re-open and what amenities might be available
Fern Resort in Ramara is planning on being open for their 125th summer despite ongoing frustration related to the unknowns surrounding the pandemic and its impact on the tourism industry. Tyler Evans/OrilliaMatters

It’s a beautiful Friday on the cusp of what looks like an idyllic summer-like weekend.

Yet, local resorts are closed.

And uncertainty abounds about when they might open as provincial authorities grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and a staged re-opening of the economy.

In our region, a big part of the economy is tourism. Officials fear tourism is going to be deeply impacted by fallout from the pandemic.

Despite all that, Orillia and Lake Country Tourism executive director Kris Puhvel says he is staying positive.

“It’s encouraging that things are re-opening, but there is still a lot of uncertainty right now," said Puhvel.

Mark Downing, co-owner of Fern Resort, is feeling that uncertainty, but he vows the Ramara landmark will open for their 125th summer - at some point.

“I’m not in a position to visualize that we can’t be open this summer. We have to move ahead as if we are going to be open,” said Downing.

The biggest challenge for Downing since closing the resort on March 17 is a lack of clear direction from the provincial government on when it will be safe to re-open and what safety protocols will need to be in place when that day comes. 

Downing is optimistic that resorts will be permitted to open as part of the second stage of the province’s three-stage plan to re-start the economy. 

Fern Resort has begun planning and preparing for re-opening following the industry's continuity plan outlining the process of delivering their service in a safe and responsible way.  

Currently Fern Resort is taking some bookings. Downing hopes to be open for July and August, the two months that represent 80% of their revenue for the year.

“I do expect that there will be some strong demand for us because there is no other option for people to leave the country or leave the province,” Downing said of travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic. 

Like Fern Resort, Bayview Wildwood Resort has had a lot of cancelled bookings for this summer, says assistant manager Jeff Sonnenberg. 

“We’ve had numerous things like weddings and family reunions that were booked over the next several months and those have been cancelled for this year.”

 Fortunately, most of those cancelled bookings have already been rebooked for next year, he said.

Sonnenberg said he expects Bayview Wildwood to be open this summer, but he says the services they offer and the amenities they provide will likely look different.

 “We aren’t fully able to answer what it will look like. We are waiting for further direction from the Ontario government,” said Sonnenberg.

 While they wait for the government's guidance, Bayview Wildwood has come up with a three- step strategy for re-opening and they are still taking bookings, said Sonnenberg.

“We have people calling who had an international vacation booked in the next short while and they’ve had to cancel and are now calling to book at our property because they are staying local,” Sonnenberg explained.

He said he is hoping that the Bayview Wildwood cancelled bookings will at least in part be offset by new bookings from locals who are seeking a travel experience, leaving a less harsh financial impact on their business. 

It’s a challenging time, agreed Puhvel.

“A lot of businesses are suffering, not only tourism but all sorts of local business and we need to come together and show our love,” Puhvel said.

Resorts and other tourism businesses will especially be impacted by the cancellation of so many popular summer festivals and events, he said.

 “The really big events like Boots and Hearts, Mariposa Folk Festival, Orillia waterfront events ... they’ve all been cancelled and a lot of accommodators really rely on those events to bring people in, stay, and spend,” he said.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, he noted.

“Our main strength for when we can invite people back up here is our recreation opportunities,” said Puhvel. “I think people will initially feel most comfortable doing those activities that allow for social distancing.”

Once tourists are given the green light to travel, Puhvel expects people from the GTA and southwestern Ontario will be concerned about crossing the border and instead will come to our region for their getaway.

“I think people will be looking for those travel experiences and will want to get out of the city and we have a lot to offer,” Puhvel said.