With the busy summer tourism season winding down, businesses and tourist attraction operators are optimistic that the local industry is back to normal and that the COVID-19 pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror.
An influx of travelers is expected for the last big weekend of the summer with people having three days off for Labor Day and kids not going back to school until next week.
The Blues in the Bay annual music festival is expected to draw crowds to wrap up the summer.
Blues bands will perform Friday night to Monday afternoon in Alexandria Bay.
The Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce and the Double Barrel Blues Band, performing from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, host the festival. A craft fair will also be held Saturday and Sunday in the pavilion at Scenic View Park.
Mary Compeau, chamber president, is looking forward to the 21st blues festival with a headlining act of Miller and the Other Sinners, a popular Buffalo-based band.
“We should expect a lot of Canadians after two years of the lockdown,” she said.
The leisure and recreation sector of the tourism industry bounced back last summer, said Corey C. Fram, director of the Thousands Islands International Tourism Council.
And this summer the local hotel industry has rebounded, Mr. Fram said. In 2021, area hotels still were impacted by the effects of the pandemic.
But he’s heard that hotels in and around Watertown all are having big years, with business picking up for weddings, corporate meetings and small business gatherings.
“We’re doing well,” said Jody Pettit, general manager for Watertown’s Hilton Garden Inn, 1290 Arsenal St. “It’s been a busy summer.”
In July, the hotel had an occupancy rate of more than 80% and in August, it hit 86%. Weekends were fully booked, she said.
“Let’s hope it’s a trend that happens for years to come,” she said.
To help travelers look for a room, Hilton Garden Inn employees have had to call Syracuse and Ogdensburg because the region’s hospitality industry was completely sold out, she said.
Business meetings have returned, she said. Bus coaches full of travelers are also back. There were less Zoom meetings and more in-person gatherings and a trend of government entities using the Hilton Garden Inn’s amenities also increased.
The Holiday Inn Express next door also experienced that kind of success, she said.
During the height of the pandemic, the wedding market basically dried up, with couples initially inviting just 20 guests and then maybe 50 people later on. But big weddings of 200 are back; guests are no longer afraid of traveling, she said. Three weddings are booked for Labor Day weekend alone.
At Boldt Castle, 31 couples have tied the knot on scenic Heart Island so far this season, with another 15 couples ready to exchange their wedding vows still this season. Another 25 are already booked for 2023.
Attendance is up a bit and visitors are spending more money in Boldt Castle’s gift shop, said Brian K. Salisbury, the castle’s director of facilities, operations and maintenance.
“We’re pleased with the way the season is going,” he said.
After a two-year absence, private Canadian boaters are again stopping at the castle, he said. But still only one Canadian boat line brings visitors from north of the border.
City Cruises crosses the river from Gananoque, Ontario, once a day. Castle officials had hoped that a second boat line from Canada, Rockport Boat Lines, also was going to make the daily trips, but staffing issues canceled the summer visits, Mr. Salisbury said.
“They were coming and they weren’t coming and then they were coming and then they weren’t,” he said, before the company gave short notice it wasn’t happening.
“It was a roller coaster,” he said.
The Michael Ringer St. Lawrence Gallery in Clayton wasn’t hit hard during the last two summers by the pandemic, said co-owner Kevin J. Topa.
By the end of the summer of 2020, the tourism industry opened up for tourists from within New York, he recalled. While the Canadian market remained shut down last summer, travelers were rediscovering the Thousand Islands after many years or were coming to the area for the first time. It made up the difference, he said.
Some of those people who rediscovered the islands are also making return trips to the islands this summer, he said.
“And 2022, we’re back on track,” he said. “We’re back to normal.”
Prior to the pandemic, 2019 was a banner year for the local tourism industry when $273 million was spent in Jefferson County, and it grew last year to $280 million, spurred by travelers wanting to get back on the road for “revenge” trips.
Mr. Fram thinks that this summer might be another “banner year,” adding that it started slowly in the spring and in June.
He was worried that inflation, gas prices, workforce challenges, difficulties with delivery of goods and continued restrictions on Canadian visitors were going to impact the season.
But things turned out, he said.
“I think overall, we’ll be around those numbers, with a couple of points down or couple of points up from 2021,” he said.
While Labor Day weekend is typically the last big hoorah, this past weekend had a couple of events that will help in what is usually “a lull in the schedule,” Mr. Fram said.
For the sixth year, Brew York returned to the Madison Barracks in Sackets Harbor, with a few thousand people enjoying beer and wine vendors, free tastings, food trucks, a cornhole tournament and more. Stroll on Broadway, featuring musical performances, crafts and vendors along Broadway Avenue in Cape Vincent, also was a hit last Saturday.
Those kinds of events are a good way to kick off Labor Day weekend, he said.
Mr. Fram hopes that the summer success will continue through the fall and into the early winter tourism season.