COVID could boost winter tourism in Muskoka Lakes

·3 min read

The traffic of tourism in Muskoka's winter has always paled in comparison to the traffic in the summer. This year, Darren Scott, owner of the Muskoka Stay n’ Play Tours in Bala, said he’s getting ready for his busiest winter yet.

“With all this craziness going on, I’ve had business like no tomorrow,” he said.

That “craziness” is, of course, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott said he’s had many calls this fall from people planning their winter getaways for Muskoka in lieu of their normal travelling plans abroad before the pandemic.

In the District of Muskoka's survey published Nov. 12, 17 per cent of respondents said they’re hoping to be in Muskoka more often during the weekends in the winter months, meaning a 5,000 to 7,000 population increase.

Norah Fountain, the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce's executive director, said while the chamber isn’t encouraging people to travel to Muskoka until the situation is safe, they are expecting a busier winter tourism season with more seasonal residents planning to stay.

Overall, provided there's no major changes for the worse with the pandemic in Ontario, Muskoka Lakes and the district at large could see a surge in support of the winter tourism industry.

At the Stay n’ Play Tours, Scott’s most popular winter activities are guided snowmobile tours and ice-fishing, usually done on Bala Bay once the water freezes over in the winter. He starts up business around Christmas time, running activities until March break, weather permitting.

Scott has been in business for eight years and said local winter activities like these are becoming a bigger thing.

“I’ve noticed an influx in people wanting to come up here, and a lot of them are, for the first time,” he said.

This year, he’s estimated around 85 per cent of the clientele booking snowmobile tours or ice-fishing expeditions are from the city, while 15 per cent of them are locals.

“I’m finding now people are not wanting to travel on planes anywhere. They’re not travelling abroad like they normally would," he said.

However, he’s concerned about what this tourism could mean for the spread of the virus: he’s taking a number of precautions to maintain physical distancing, hygiene and cleanliness this winter.

“In the past, I’ve booked groups of 30, 40 people. That won’t be the case this year. I want to keep everybody safe and still have a good time,” he said.

He’s also sanitizing snowmobile helmets after use and plans to host single touring groups at a time instead of three to four at a time.

“I’ve had to spend a little bit more money in prep to do with COVID and change up how my operation is going to be this winter,” he said.

For people staying at the cottage, Fountain said there’s an opportunity for people to “rediscover” their own backyard.

“If you’re up at the cottage, we hope you’re staying there,” she said. “And while you’re here, there are things to do.”

Zahraa Hmood is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering the municipalities of Muskoka Lakes, Lake of Bays and Georgian Bay. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Zahraa Hmood, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com