COVID-19 pandemic sets back Sask. tourism sector

The Doukhobor Dugout House near Blaine Lake is closed this season due to restrictions on gatherings. On a busy Saturday, the site sees hundreds of people come through. (Doukhobor Dugout House National Historic Site Of Canada/Facebook)

It may be Saskatchewan Tourism Week, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of the province’s must-see sites into a standstill for the season.

The Government of Saskatchewan has proclaimed tourism week in the province from May 24 to 30, coinciding with Tourism Week in Canada.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought tourism, worldwide, to an abrupt halt, causing severe, long-term effects and an uncertain future. Saskatchewan’s tourism sector has experienced serious setbacks and faces a lengthy road to recovery,” said a news release from the provincial government.

The Doukhobor Dugout House near Blaine Lake is just one volunteer-led organization affected. Founder Brenda Cheveldayoff said they have no choice but to not allow visitors this year.

“It’s very disappointing because there’s just not a chance to be able to do social distancing,” she said. “It’s not like you’re just listening to us talk. We bring you in and have you participate.”

This is the first time in 18 years that the site can’t take visitors.

In other years, staff take guests back to 1899, when Russian Doukhobors fled their homeland and settled near Blaine Lake. Adapting to the environment, they dug into the North Saskatchewan River ravine and built a dugout house before building log houses and forming a nearby village.

The Doukhobor Dugout House was designated a National Historical Site in 2008, according to its website, with an official ceremony held in 2013. It also became a provincial heritage site in 2005.

Cheveldayoff said they planned a special ribbon cutting for this year to honour a longtime volunteer and director.

Donna Choppe, who passed away earlier this year, dreamt of having a prayer home on the site. The only problem was that the building needed almost $7,000 in roof repairs.

“This season we were supposed to do a ribbon cutting on a historical building that was ready to be open,” said Cheveldayoff.

“There was going to be a balloon release also for people for their ancestors, to remember your own family, not necessarily has to be a Doukabour, but somebody from your own because we always bring everybody together—and now that can’t happen.”

MP Kelly Block and Premier Scott Moe were slated to attend the event.

Instead, the site is giving one free admission in 2021 per donation to the project. To donate, you can visit the Doukhobor Dugout House website.

Cheveldayoff said many think the site will be open for visitors this year because phase three of the province’s plan to reopen the economy, which starts June 8, bumps up the cap on outdoor gatherings to 30 people.

“People don’t just come there and then leave right away. It was just too hard, and we didn’t feel comfortable telling people they couldn’t come in and you’re driving all the way down the grid road and spending two hours to get to the location and finding out you can’t come in,” she said.

On a busy Saturday, she said, between 200 and 300 people will visit the Doukhobor Dugout House. Per season, which lasts two months, they see about 3,000 people attending.

Normally, they also get a summer student through the federal government, but Cheveldayoff said they haven’t heard anything about if they’ll get one this year. They could use it though, she said, because they’re still doing maintenance around the yard.

Gene Makowsky, minister responsible for Tourism Saskatchewan, is encouraging the public to continue to support the tourism sector throughout the pandemic.

“As we move through the phases of re-opening the province, I encourage residents to support local tourism businesses while continuing safe social distancing,” he said in the release.

“Each year, Saskatchewan Tourism Week highlights why tourism matters and how our industry contributes significantly to our province’s economy and quality of life,” Tourism Saskatchewan CEO Mary Taylor-Ash added.

“Tourism Saskatchewan is eager to convey these important messages during this challenging time for tourism. The week will continue to be an occasion that unites our industry and brings attention to the innovative, hardworking and resilient people who make tourism happen. It is an opportunity to share their stories, and remind everyone of the incredible tourism experiences available right here in Saskatchewan.”

Tourism Saskatchewan began posting a series of videos to its consumer and industry social media channels on Monday. Industry operators are invited to post videos and images of their own operations and customers using the hashtag #SKTourismWeek.