It's no secret that COVID has had a severe impact on local tourism.
While it would be easy to dwell on the economic losses the community has faced over the last two years, Sault Ste. Marie Tourism is looking ahead to brighter days.
The tourism team works to draw out-of-market interest in several areas like outdoor recreation, sports, special events, international group tours, meetings, and conventions.
The goal is to develop itineraries for people travelling to the Sault for an event, and then build off that experience while visitors are here in an effort to extend their stay.
Travis Anderson, the director of Tourism and Community Development with the city, says there has been a lot of positive change over the last few years.
"If you haven't been to the Sault in the last three to five years, then you really haven't been to the Sault," he says. "I think the culture is changing, the investments from the city are changing, and we're starting to see that from people outside of the community."
Among those pivotal investments includes their work in developing mountain biking trails. Anderson says they're working with the Kinsmen Club to expand their network of trails, and they're even looking at creating a new skills park area.
"We believe we're already the premier mountain biking destination in Ontario," he says. "We really want to continue investing in assets that will make us the best. Our plan is to increase the trail network enough that if we're attracting visitors, there's sufficient trails to keep visitors here at a minimum of two to three days, which will create overnight stays."
Out-of-town visitors are not only showing interest in making return trips, but some are already beginning to consider moving to the Sault permanently.
"I had a couple that came up in the Fall that went mountain biking," Anderson says. "They reached out to me and said they were interested in relocating and wanted more information on the Sault. We're seeing huge interest in terms of the investments we're making and a return on both tourism and resident attraction."
While new developments like the mountain bike trails are drawing in a considerable amount of attention, some familiar favourites are also making a comeback.
The Agawa Canyon Tour Train is returning to the tracks this year after running for just two weeks last season at half capacity. The train will be operating at full capacity from August 1 to October 10, and ticket bookings are now available.
Alana Kenopic, manager of Tourism and Travel with the city, is optimistic the train will continue to be successful.
"It's a great opportunity to bring in a long list of people who have been waiting the last couple of years to come to the Sault to experience the train," she says. "There are roughly 5,000 seats set aside already for group tours, and full capacity for the train is around 800 seats. We're very excited."
The train will be in service for around 100 days, meaning roughly 80,000 seats are available for the season.
Kenopic is also excited about bringing back the tour boat, an attraction that hasn't been seen on the Sault's waterfront in a decade.
"We see the boats on the U.S. side that are packed with guests," she says. "If we can bring just a small percentage of those folks over to Canada - it's a win. To then be able to build in that experience to extend their stay for an extra day or two would be incredible."
The city will also be hosting a countless number of events over the summer months and can be found here.
"It's a really exciting lineup of events," Kenopic says. "On top of the events we have planned, we're always encouraging people to look at what else we can bring in and how we can support that idea. We're here to try and take those ideas and form them into great community events and draw new people in."
Kenopic adds the Tourism Development Fund will be instrumental in putting that financial boost into these events year after year to help turn over money for reinvestment.
"We're incredibly optimistic," she says. "We're seeing great uptick in that program."
Kenopic recognizes there is a light at the end of COVID's long and dark tunnel, and now it's all about drawing that attention back to the Sault after the pandemic made it impossible to do so.
"Every city says they're a great city," she says. "We have to separate ourselves from what the competition is doing to get them up here. The longer we can then keep those people here, the more we're going to see a return in our hotels and restaurants."