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Sault tourism numbers off track in 2003.

As Mickey Mouse is identified to Disney World, nothing sells the rugged beauty and natural attributes of Sault Ste. Marie and the Algoma district like the Agawa Canyon Tour Train.

But in a year where SARS, Mad Cow disease, tougher security at the U.S. border and uncertainty in the airline industry has caused a slump in North American travel spending, even the Algoma Central Railway's Agawa Canyon Tour Train has taken its share of hits.

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After drawing more than 80,000 riders annually between 1996 and 2000, including a high of 88,667 in 1999, Mike Morrow, the railway's manager of passenger marketing, expects the tour train will draw only 59,000 visitors this year once the last leaf has fallen by the end of October.

"This year was an anomaly. There were just so many things against us," says Morrow. He notes public fears over West Nile disease, a slumping U.S. economy, corporate dotcom fiascoes affecting many American retirement funds, Canada's position on the Iraq war combined with three weeks of rain during the peak fall colours in late September, as having contributed to plummeting ridership.

Despite the setback, the 181-kilometer train excursion over the trestles, through granite rock formations and the mixed forests of the Canadian Shield made famous by the Group of Seven artists, has been the city's biggest tourism draw for more than 30 years. It has also been considered money in the bank for the city's hospitality sector.

Morrow explains the longevity and popularity of the nine-hour excursion for tourists and train buffs alike still remains the destination of Agawa Canyon.

Earlier this year, Algoma Central Railway was recognized by Tourism Sault Ste. Marie as the first-ever recipient of its Business of the Year Award for its long-standing contribution in establishing a strong tourism base and generating millions of dollars to the region's economy.

The train has carried over 2.7 million riders and more than three million since 1952.

Over the years, the railway has kept the product fresh by adding the Snow Train, Tour of the Line to Hearst, Tracks to Trails, snow mobile excursions, dome cars, the Canyon View camp car, luxury private car excursions and stops at wilderness lodges.

The railway has been the driving force behind the ACR market-share program involving Sault accommodation partners. The program entails packaging the train excursion with overnight stays and pooling marketing funds aimed at drawing more American tourists across the border.

With 70 per cent of visitors coming from the U.S. Midwest, Morrow says the effort has convinced most of the train's passengers to book hotel packages on the Canadian side of the St. Mary's River. This year, they have unveiled the Four-Culture Passport package with admission to four Sault area museums and galleries along with their tour train ticket.

Morrow wants to spruce up their rolling stock by accessing some provincial government dollars. Together with Bruce Strapp, president of the City of Sault Ste. Marie's Economic Development Corp. (EDC), Morrow has pulled together a proposal to form a private public partnership with the EDC to access Northern Ontario Heritage Fund money through a special fund accessible up to $5 million. Morrow has sent his proposal up the CN chain of command for matching dollars.

Ian McMillan, the city's director of tourism, agrees the Algoma Central Railway is the backbone of tourism and the market-share program for his department's tourism programs.

"The amount that they put into the industry in terms of tourism marketing and promotion, and the support they've show for us, Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, has ridden on the backs of their success story."

With the tour train as a staple attraction, Tourism Sault Ste. Marie has boosted visitations to the Sault Museum, Bushplane Heritage Museum, the Art Gallery of Algoma and the Clergue Blockhouse National Heritage Site through the Cultural Passport program. About 6,000 tour packages were sold this year.

Over the course of the year, McMillan says the winter months of January through April were good with more than 75,000 skier visits to the Searchmont Resort. There were increases in snowmobile trail permits, and hotel occupancy increased 34 per cent in January, two per cent in February and 14 per cent in March, until the summer months hit and the tourism market took a dive.

www.agawacanyontourtrain.com

www.sault-canada.com/tourism

By IAN ROSS

Northern Ontario Business
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Title Annotation:Sault Ste Marie
Author:Ross Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:735
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