This article is part one of a two-part series. Right now all the lodge owners and outfitters in North America sit quietly in their houses waiting to see how the corona virus is going to affect their seasons. Saltwater lodges on Haida Gwaii, and up and down the coast that together have customers in the thousands maybe forced to completely close down for the summer. The most famous trout and salmon lodges in Bristol Bay, Alaska are running out of time to make the final decision to either turn the key to on or lock up the doors for a year and officially shut down. All these fishing seasons typically start in June.
One of the determining factors will be how to protect the small communities near these fishing areas. The local people who live in Haida Gwaii, coastal communities, and the small, native villages of Alaska fall into a very high-risk segment of the population. This includes elders who hold vital memories, and stories from the past that could never be replaced. It includes populations of people with secondary health issues that could raise the risks tenfold.
These factors all play into a final decision that will be made by local communities, the government and the outfitters. Can the lodges operate in a safe way and minimize risk? The wellness of these remote areas clearly risks devastation no matter what is ultimately decided. Customers from all over the world are weighing options; guests who have never missed a year fishing at their favorite lodge (in some cases, over 20 years) face the streak abruptly ending due to the pandemic.
It is becoming apparent that the tourism sector is the industry that will be hit the hardest for the longest. Economies based on tourism are currently in a dire position—tied to railway tracks with a fast-approaching freight train without brakes. The government support for lodges and guides is helpful in the short term, but the long-term effects will leave each owner eventually forced to sink or swim on their own. Temporary support can only last so long and the stain left on the tourism industry by COVID-19 will surely linger for years to come, post-virus. Outfitters are not only trying to figure out how to survive this coming summer but also what comes next. The threats are mounting, the prognosis is daunting, and the only thing we know for sure is the world is rapidly changing and much uncertainty looms.
The doom and gloom is mounting for fisheries relying on June and July. Beyond that remains a mystery. Most lodges rely financially on operating a full season at full capacity. If the season or capacity is cut by 30% or more, they face losing a tremendous amount of money by even opening the doors to customers. Margins are incredibly thin in this space and the risk of being put completely out of business is very real. Most operations can survive a down season, but if it were to happen in back-to-back years, the business would surely self-destruct. With this in mind, lodges are trying to work out policies that can help them keep their heads above water.
Currently, booking agents are working overtime trying to mend fences from cancelled seasons. A source at Flywater Travel has told us they have cancelled 427 trips over the past 6 weeks. In many of these cases, the guests had paid in full. Operators have been forced to create policies as to what to do with these non-refundable payments. In a perfect world, lodges could refund all these payments and wait for 2021 to begin booking again. Unfortunately, this is impossible for the business. Lodges have spent, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars already in preparation for the season. If guests were to get full refunds, these operations would have to declare bankruptcy.
Booking policies are ranging all over the map. Although no refunds have been available to our knowledge, there have been some offering rollovers with 100% payment to 2021. Other lodges are keeping 50% for money spent and allowing a 50% rollover. Outfitters are doing their best to balance finances, staff, guest expectations, and the very real threat that this is not an isolated issue affecting solely the 2020 summer. Repercussions could carry over to the 2020–2021 winter and possibly the following spring and summer.
Customer reactions have varied as well. In some cases, guests are threatening lawsuits, and yet others are wholly supporting their favorite lodges. Some generous anglers have even offered that their full payments stay with the outfitter, whether it opens or not. Undying loyalty versus claims of severe breach of trust—the industry is seeing it all. The common theme is that guests who have greater personal ties to the people they fish with are being much more supportive of ensuring that operation survives. This article is part one of a two part series: stay tuned for our op-ed piece on the same subject.