ALEXANDRIA BAY — The local tourism industry is cautiously reopening after the first month of the vacation season passed with very few visitors making their way to the 1000 Islands region.
Do you have plans to be out and about this weekend?
The COVID-19 pandemic upended almost every aspect of the economy, but the tourism industry may have been one of the worst-hit. With airplanes grounded, international borders closed and most people under some type of stay-at-home order, the idea of going for a weekend getaway was far from most people’s minds at the height of the pandemic.
Now, as stay-at-home orders relax and as the north country moves into the last stages of the phased reopening, businesses are able to start serving customers again and tourists are returning to the region.
“As soon as we opened on May 15, the phones started ringing again, because everyone was exited to go out and be outside again,” said Allen S. Benas, owner of 1000 Islands Fishing Charters in Clayton. “I doubled my June bookings in a week.”
Mr. Benas’ business was originally slated to open in the later reopening phases, but right before the north country entered Phase I, he got word that he was able to reopen with other Phase 1 businesses.
“We were actually taken by surprise when we were able to reopen earlier,” Mr. Benas said.
While some tourist attractions, like fishing charters and outdoor restaurants, have been open for a few weeks now, others remain shuttered without a concrete date to reopen.
Boldt Castle, perhaps one of the most recognizable attractions in the region, is one such business.
“We’re shooting for June 27, but that isn’t set in stone yet,” said Timothy Sturick, executive director of the 1000 Islands Bridge Authority, which oversees Boldt Castle.
Mr. Sturick said that income for the authority is down across the board. Boldt Castle is generating no income without visitors, and the bridge is facing a 50 percent drop in revenue as the border between the U.S. and Canada remains closed to nonessential travel.
When the castle does reopen, Mr. Sturick said that he anticipates a significant decrease in foot traffic. As long as the border remains closed, no Canadian visitors will be able to make the trip, which account for between 35 and 40 percent of the castle’s annual visitors.
“We have over 50,000 Canadian visitors in a year,” Mr. Sturick said.
Once the castle does reopen, social distancing regulations will be enforced. That includes mandating that face masks be worn inside all the buildings, having hand sanitizer available, and ensuring that indoor areas don’t get too crowded.
“We’re looking at limiting capacities inside the buildings,” Mr. Sturick said. “The grounds don’t really have a set capacity, but we like to say it’s around 3,000 or 4,000 people per day. We don’t anticipate that many visitors because the Canadian lines won’t be running, though.”
The outlook for tourism this season from local businesses is cautiously optimistic, however. Mr. Benas said that based on the reservations he’s seen made with his charter company, as well as the number of inquires being made to the tourism board and the Clayton Chamber of Commerce, it seems that plenty of people want to visit the 1000 Islands.
Corey Fram, director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, said that the vacation season in the region typically runs from June to mid-September, and by chance the reopening schedule has lined up with the season.
“There’s a lot of data that says this region should feel less impact of the pandemic than other regions,” Mr. Fram said. “But there is still going to be a significant impact.”
Mr. Fram said that because most visitors come by car, as opposed to by plane or train, and because the north country has very low population density, there is a lot about the region that can be marketed to the COVID-era traveler.
“This year we’re putting an emphasis on open spaces in our marketing,” Mr. Fram said.
He pointed out the forests around Rutland in the eastern area of the county as a great socially-distanced getaway, as well as the fishing and boating opportunities on the St. Lawrence River.
Mr. Fram said that no matter what happens this year, he is confident that tourism will remain a major industry in Jefferson County.
“The things that make this place an attractive destination will still be here in a year, in five years,” he said. “The tourism infrastructure is where we’re keeping an eye on things, to ensure that our businesses remain viable through this downturn.”