Tourism is on the rise in the Thousand Islands. Yet workers and housing are hard to come by

Amy FeiereiselTourism is on the rise in the Thousand Islands. Yet workers and housing are hard to come by

Tourism leaders across the North Country expect this summer to be busy, with Canadian tourists returning after a two-year hiatus, joined by more recent visitors to the region, who have found the North Country during the pandemic.

While the Thousand Islands region has done surprisingly well during the pandemic, it is also grappling with labour, housing, and supply chain issues, like many northern travel destinations. country.

The COVID-19 years

The Uncle Sam Boat Tour docks in Alexandria Bay have been busy lately. Full boats depart several times a day to cruise the St. Lawrence River and visit popular attractions like Boldt Castle.

Nate Sourwine is the Operations Manager for Uncle Sam Boat Tours. He said on Memorial Day they had to add an extra tour to get everyone on the water. “Compared to what we’ve seen over the COVID years, we’ve had a lot more demand. So it’s been good so far this year.”

Uncle Sam Boat Tours boat leaving the dock in downtown Alexandria Bay.  Photo: Amy Feiereisel

Uncle Sam Boat Tours boat leaving the dock in downtown Alexandria Bay. Photo: Amy Feiereisel

But Sourwine also noted that the past two years haven’t been so bad. He says the Thousand Islands has found a whole new market. “Actually COVID has brought a lot of new people to the area that we haven’t seen before. It’s become a new vacation spot for them. And a lot of people have come here to buy homes and residences. ‘summer.”

According to Corey Fram of the Thousand Islands Tourism Council International, the 2020 tourist season is down about 30% from 2019. But last summer it was actually up 20% from 2019. Recreational communities like Clayton and Alexandria Bay were particularly hopping.

Labor shortages remain a problem

But even as visitors flocked to the area, businesses struggled. One of the biggest problems has been the labor shortage, says Corey Fram of the Thousand Islands Tourism Council International. He says that while business was up in Jefferson County in 2021, the overall number of people working in the service was down. And he expects the labor shortage to continue this summer.

“There aren’t as many people looking for work as there are jobs available. And we know our businesses won’t be able to fill them like in the past.”

Fram says there are reasons for this. It’s not just that people don’t want to work. It’s that there are obstacles to their return. “Childcare, housing, transport, all of this is a challenge for the leisure and hospitality employment sector.

During the pandemic, the North Country has lost childcare capacity, while house prices and rents have soared. For a myriad of reasons, there is a smaller pool of workers, serving an increasing number of visitors. Fram says the labor shortage concerns him and everyone else in local tourism because “you expect to be treated well and you expect great service when you go on vacation. And that is therefore a concern for the travel industry”.

Good service may be the goal, but Debra Butterfield, owner of the cheery 32-room Otter Creek Inn in Alexandria Bay, says she’s struggling to find workers. “I have an ad on Craigslist, I had an ad in the TI Sun for eight weeks. Nothing, no response. It’s so disheartening for small business owners in New York State.”

The rise of STR and the shortage of affordable housing

Debra Butterfield owns the Otter Creek Inn with her husband in Alexandria Bay.  Photo: Amy Feiereisel

Debra Butterfield owns the Otter Creek Inn with her husband in Alexandria Bay. Photo: Amy Feiereisel

Butterfield and her husband operate the inn. It’s their 19e open season. She said they couldn’t find housekeepers, which meant they were trying to do everything themselves. “We do a lot more work. My husband and I are. I’m tired. I don’t usually look so tired. I’m serious. I’m exhausted.”

She says she loves the Thousand Islands region and operates a place that families and visitors return to year after year. She is hopeful for this summer, as water levels in the St. Lawrence River are good and Canadian tourists can return.

But she says the past two years have been difficult. She didn’t see the great influx of new visitors here at the hostel. She says it’s because they’re competing with an increasing number of short-term rentals on platforms like AirBnB and VRBO.

“I have a problem with these because they’re not required to get the health department inspections and they don’t pay the resort tax. It’s not fair. And that’s a problem. a problem for locals who want to buy houses. They can’t afford them now.”

Corey Fram of the Tourism Council has the numbers to back up Butterfield’s hunch on the rise of STRs. In just one year, between April 2021 and April 2022, short-term rentals in Jefferson County have increased by 30%.

Fram says there are currently no regulations in place regarding short-term rentals in Jefferson County, many conversations about creating some have popped up. ” I think it is [regulations are] coming up because I think it’s starting to become a recognition of it. And so that [affordable housing avilability] is beginning to weigh on the industry and stress an already highly stressed workforce. »

For workers, especially seasonal workers, it boils down to this: if you can’t afford to live in an area, it will definitely be difficult to work there.

Rising wages and competition for housing

A company that did not heDidn’t have a hard time finding employees, it’s Nav’s Popcorn, located just off the main drag in Alexandria Bay. Nav’s Popcorn sells one thing: 30 flavors of popcorn. There is a large wooden boat in the middle of the store filled with bags.

Cheryl and Jim Navarra are the owners. Cheryl says 2020 and 2021 have been banner years for them, reflecting this increase in visitor numbers. “Both years, both summers, our numbers have grown exponentially.”

They employ 11 people at the store, and they do not have struggled to find workers, but the couple attribute this to the fact that they mainly employ teenagers. “We were lucky to have what we call river rats, kids coming to their cottage.”

Jim and Cheryl Navarra at their store, Nav's Popcorn, in downtown Alexandria Bay.  Photo: Amy Feiereisel

Jim and Cheryl Navarra at their store, Nav’s Popcorn, in downtown Alexandria Bay. Photo: Amy Feiereisel

The Navarrese also recognize that it is a competitive labor market. They offer cash bonuses and flexible time off. The NYS minimum wage is $13.20 right now. The Navarrese pay between 15 and 17 dollars per hour.

They are doing well, but they are also feeling the inflation, the supply chain and the wage crisis. “We haven’t raised our prices in three years. We haven’t raised them during the pandemic. But this year we were forced to raise them because of our shipping and product costs and our payroll.”

They also know the need for affordable housing for seasonal workers. Above the store are two apartments that the Navarrese rent to seasonal employees of other companies. They have been in high demand over the past two summers. “We have a waiting list of people who want to rent it!” Cheryl said.

Finding solutions for the Thousand Islands

Corey Fram, of the Tourism Council, says he believes there are solutions to labor and housing shortages, if energy and investment are devoted to addressing them. He says investments in child care capacity (in which Jefferson and Lewis are investing) will be critical. He also thinks that recognizing the importance of working in the service industry would help attract new workers.

And affordable housing is at the top of Fram’s list. Fortunately, says Fram, this region knows how to build lots of housing quickly. “We have had housing issues in the past particularly related to the Fort Drum military installation, ensuring that we have adequate housing for our brave men and women who serve in the military and support the military. We We’re kind of just on the precipice in my mind, of having to deal with housing for the leisure and hospitality sector as well.”

Fram says with 11% of jobs in Jefferson County in tourism, that’s something they can’t afford not to understand.

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