After many years of trying encouraging winter tourism in northern Cape Breton, operators say they're finally seeing results, with an increasing number of people from off-island travelling in search of snow.
"I would say that within the last five years or so, not counting the horrible time that everyone had with COVID ... our numbers are probably about 200 or more people per winter travelling from off-island, whereas five to 10 years ago maybe not even half that number was coming here," said Katie Fougere, manager of North Highlands Nordic, a cross-country ski facility in Cape North, N.S.
Fougere believes the area's winter tourism offerings are being better promoted. And there's another key factor.
"We have snow," she said.
She knows of cross-country ski clubs in the Halifax area and south that had no snow, or very little snow, at times last year.
Cross-country skiers on one of North Highlands Nordic's trails last week. (North Highlands Nordic/Facebook)
"So people were really itching to stretch their legs and get out. And they're willing to drive the distance to come when they know we have over 12 kilometres of groomed ski trails."
In fact, the first weekend North Highlands opened this year, Fougere received an early morning call from a couple in New Brunswick who inquired about the snow conditions.
"So I was able to give them the trail report, before I even posted it online. And they hopped in their truck and came straight here," she said.
Kate Wright and her family are on a six-day vacation in northern Cape Breton from Pleasantville, N.S., which had no snow when they left.
"Certainly you have more snow and that's part of it," she said.
Wright said it was an online post from the Highlands Hostel in Cape North that convinced them to make the trip.
Martin Kejval, general manager of Ski Cape Smokey, says he's noticed more restaurants operating during the winter months in recent years. (Holly Conners/CBC)
"They have a really great social media presence where you can see all the things to do in the area. So we decided to come up and do some snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sliding, all that stuff," said Wright.
Ski Cape Smokey in Ingonish is also a destination for off-island visitors. Eighty per cent of the hill's customers come from off-island.
And whereas local amenities were hard to come buy in previous years, some tourism operators are now extending their seasons to serve the snow seekers.
"When we started in 2019 ... there were zero restaurants except ours which were open," said Martin Kejval, manager of Ski Cape Smokey.
The Ingonish area now has six restaurants, and overnight accommodations amounting to about 600 beds, open through the winter, he said.
A wood-fired pizza restaurant that first opened in South Harbour is reopening for the winter season this weekend.
Fougere also is optimistic.
"It's helping to expand our economy throughout the winter, so that things are more sustainable," she said. "Our winter tourism is growing. And it's taken a long time, but finally you can see it."
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