ALEXANDRIA BAY — For years, tourists traveling to the north country visited the iconic Boldt Castle more than any other single tourist attraction in the region.
During this summer, as the coronavirus pandemic continued, Boldt Castle’s attendance dropped more than 50% this season.
With the summer season now over, about 73,000 people explored the rooms and corridors of Boldt Castle on Heart Island, or less than half that visited the six-story namesake of hotelier George C. Boldt in 2019.
By the time the castle closes for the season on Oct. 4, Timothy Sturick, executive director of Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, hopes that number will increase to about 80,000.
It could’ve been worse, he said.
“We anticipated a very timid season, but we ended up above our expectations this summer,” he said.
The bridge authority has owned Boldt Castle since 1977, when it decided to spend millions of dollars to restore the landmark built to honor the hotel magnate’s beloved wife Louise. Distraught, the millionaire stopped construction in 1904 after she died suddenly, just months before its completion.
This season, the castle had to wait well into June — weeks later than its usual opening in early May — to open while the state waited to phase in the reopening of the north country economy to make sure the virus wouldn’t spread.
Two crucial tourism markets were lost by travel restrictions this summer, Mr. Sturick said. Between 35% to 40% of its visitors from Canada couldn’t make it to the region because the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed because of the pandemic.
They could only drive by in their boats to see the castle from afar and not pay for admission to stop at Heart Island to imagine what its original owner had in mind when he started building it in 1900.
The out-of-state market also dried up, Mr. Sturick said.
Without a full season, revenue also is down, he said. Revenue currently sits at about $1 million, probably ending up between $1.1 million and $1.2 million before the gates close. That’s compared to between $2.5 million and $3 million during a typical year.
“Keep in mind we were closed all of May and most of June this year,” he said.
The castle’s gates also opened later on a daily basis and closed earlier every night, he said.
While the pandemic impacted visits this season, the last couple of years the castle also dealt with record high waters from the St. Lawrence River. Yet Corey Fram, director of tourism on the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, said the castle “performed well” this summer season despite the virus and helped other businesses through these difficult times.
“To be honest, the castle is a Godsend,” he said, adding the tourism season could’ve been in worse shape without it.
While the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario bring many tourists to enjoy the water, Boldt Castle is the most-recognized tourist attraction in the north country, Mr. Fram said.
Known throughout New York because it was promoted through the state’s “I Love New York” tourism marketing campaigns, people just keep coming back to the crown jewel of the Thousand Islands, he said.
Repeat guests help bolster Boldt Castle attendance each year, making up about 50% of visitors.
“You have to provide something new so they keep coming back,” Mr. Sturick said.
Revenue pays for the castle’s annual capital program.
Renovating a kitchen in the Alster Tower playhouse was put off until next year. While the renovations were halted, the castle’s wastewater system had to be replaced at a cost of about $5 million, or about five times normally spent each year on improvements.
The castle employed a small staff, cut in half from its normal 50 workers, this year, and had to focus on maintaining the grounds and not on its annual capital program.
Boldt Castle generates $46 million annually for the region.