COVID-19 brings more in-province tourists into Saskatchewan’s north

The summer of 2020 has changed a lot of lives in Saskatchewan.

For Ric Driediger, owner of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters, this global pandemic has been both good and bad for his business in Missinipe, Sask., a major docking point for paddlers who want to travel around Saskatchewan’s northeastern lakes and rivers.

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According to his website, Driediger sees thousands of paddlers every summer at his outfitters north of La Ronge and this year has been no exception from a numbers perspective.

What has changed is where the people are coming from, he said.

Since any long-distance travel has not been much of a vacation option for Canadians and international travellers, the vast majority of his numbers are coming from Alberta and Saskatchewan, he said.

Gone are his usual visitors from Ontario, British Columbia, the United States and even Europe. More people are going local this year for their vacation plans.

“If you looked at just straight numbers, there are more people coming this year than last year at this time. But if you look at where they're coming from, it's totally different.”

In the long run, this is going to be a positive for Driediger, he said. If more local people are coming to check out Northern Saskatchewan, that means that these people are discovering the area as a tourist option. That means more locals will plan return visits, Driediger said.

“A lot of these people have been surprised at what we've got here. And I suspect that a lot of them will be coming back.”

The drop in international tourists has been bad for business no matter how many locals make up the difference, he said. Over the past few years, Driediger said he has been doing tourism campaigns in Great Britain to draw people into checking out Northern Saskatchewan. With COVID-19, Driediger is left wondering if those campaign dollars are now completely wasted.

“It felt like this year we were finally making a breakthrough into there. We had quite a number of groups from England coming over. And now, no, they couldn't. Is all that marketing gone?”

Even with higher than normal water levels, paddlers are still coming to take on the Churchill River and surrounding lakes. People have been calling and asking if it is still safe, he said, but high levels should never discourage paddlers from coming to the area. If anything these conditions are a bit of a blessing since paddlers usually approach their trips with more caution when water levels are higher, Driediger said. Difficult areas are easier to traverse when water levels are higher, he said. However, the downside to this is how the water changes the view, Driediger said.

“Because the water is higher all the difficult stuff is covered up. It's just not nearly as pretty like this. I like all the beautiful bedrock on the ground showing and I like seeing the shield.”

Water enthusiasts must always be careful no matter what the water conditions, Driediger said, but travelling up to Missinipe is never a bad idea.

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