‘Leaky’ Canada-U.S. border needs a reopening plan urgently, tourism experts plead

Monthly extensions of Canada-U.S. border restrictions, paired with continued promises of updates to border and travel regulations “in the coming weeks,” have left travel and tourism destinations with questions about when international visitors will be welcome.

For Niagara Falls, which normally sees about 14 million visitors a year, almost 30 per cent are from the U.S., making up about 50 per cent of revenue.

“More than 152 million people live within a one day or less drive of Niagara Falls, that’s our market,” Janice Thomson, President & CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism told Yahoo Canada. “So we’ve been able to draw on that large market, traditionally, but now that the American and the international travel has been cut off completely, we’re relying entirely on our domestic visitors.”

“[The American visitors] tend to spend more money, they stay longer in the destination and so that makes them extremely important to our area.”

Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism also confirmed that American tourists are considered “high yield visitors,” meaning that they spend more and typically stay longer.

“Especially in the summer, American and other international [travellers], like British visitors, are really important to our economy,” Bruce said.

I call it the leaky border because I’m happy for all the Canadians that have decided, ‘great I can go, I’m fully vaccinated and I’ll come back and don’t have to quarantine,’ but we really are counting on Canadians to travel in Canada this year and if they don’t, we’re in big trouble because the Americans still aren’t able to come.”Leslie Bruce, President and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise tourism

While local rules in Ontario are starting to loosen, particularly with the province moving to Step 3 of reopening on Friday, Thomson also identified that rules around capacity limits, in addition to lack of communication around upcoming rules, have impacted travel and tourism businesses in the Niagara Falls region that want to operate at a sustainable level.

“We just need to know, what is the plan, what should we look after, what should we be targeting towards, in terms of getting employees hired back, trained properly on all the new protocols,” she said.

“That’s our first focus, having the plan from the government, and I’d say having a plan from both sides would be helpful, the provincial plan on the local businesses reopening and then the federal plan on the border.”

NIAGARA FALLS, March 31, 2021 -- Visitors are seen at the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, on March 31, 2021. Canada's tourism spending was cut 48.1 percent in 2020 and tourism gross domestic product GDP plunged 47.9 percent, Statistics Canada said Wednesday. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

NIAGARA FALLS, March 31, 2021 — Visitors are seen at the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, on March 31, 2021. Canada’s tourism spending was cut 48.1 percent in 2020 and tourism gross domestic product GDP plunged 47.9 percent, Statistics Canada said Wednesday. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

Last week, Niagara Region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said that reopening the Canada-U.S. border this summer would be a risk, adding that these restrictions should be reassessed in the fall.

While Thomson recognizes that this is a public health crisis and safety is of the utmost importance, she also stressed that May to around the beginning of October is a “very critical period” for the destination to welcome visitors.

“We are expanding offerings throughout the years so that we’re seeing increased travel and attraction in the winter months, but this truly is our key time that we need to have things firing on all cylinders and get back to work,” she said. “But again, we can only do that when we’re assured that our employees, our visitors, our residents are not in any threat.”

For Banff and Lake Louise, the destination’s May results were actually worse than the same month in 2020.

“What we’re hearing from operators and what we’re seeing in terms of data that surrounds our industry is that the last minute trend has never been more last minute, people making decisions on a Friday afternoon and arriving on a Friday night,” Bruce said.

“I still don’t have anything that gives me substantial confidence that July will see a lot of visitors who have hopped on flights to get here… What I think we’re seeing is that transition that we’ve seen after each wave of restrictions that it does take us about six weeks to really turn back on and to really see enough confidence in the visitor base to start seeing that critical mass.”

LAKE LOUISE, CANADA - JUNE 26: Canoes are rented at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise boathouse on June 26, 2013 in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Major flooding along the Bow River in June washed out the Trans-Canada Highway 1 for nearly a week, forcing park visitors to cancel their vacation plans. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

LAKE LOUISE, CANADA – JUNE 26: Canoes are rented at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise boathouse on June 26, 2013 in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Major flooding along the Bow River in June washed out the Trans-Canada Highway 1 for nearly a week, forcing park visitors to cancel their vacation plans. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

With each province in Canada at a different point in COVID-19 reopening, Bruce has found that, generally speaking, there is a connection to who is searching for and booking travel.

“Anyone from Manitoba, west is actually booking,” she said. “Ontario and a little bit less so in Quebec, Quebec is starting to move a bit more freely, but we’re seeing a lot of search, a lot of desire, but not a lot of commitment yet.”

Bruce added that ambiguity and a lack of timeframe for any loosened travel restrictions federally can be difficult to manage on the ground, particularly without any particular time frames of key dates on the horizon.

“It takes a lot to get labour in place, it takes a lot to transition all your communications to make sure that it’s super clear that we’re open,” she said. “I look to countries like England that published high level, very general and subject to change, but very clearly an open plan.”

“I think that if I could make a plea, that would be exactly that… Just give us a plan, we can expect that the plan may change but give us a plan so that we are more on our toes as opposed to on our heels when things roll out.”

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - JULY 11:  In this handout photo provided by Walt Disney World Resort, guests take a selfie at Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort on July 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. July 11, 2020 is the first day of the phased reopening. (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL – JULY 11: In this handout photo provided by Walt Disney World Resort, guests take a selfie at Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort on July 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. July 11, 2020 is the first day of the phased reopening. (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images)

Canadian vs. American travel destinations

These impacts haven’t just been felt on the Canadian side of the border but they extend to destinations on the American side as well.

Canada is Orlando’s largest international market, which welcomed more than 1.2 million Canadian visitors in 2019, 19 per cent of total international visitation. Canadians are usually running to get to the hot weather and visit world-famous Disney and Universal theme parks and resorts, in addition to adventures like zip lining over alligators, or more peaceful kayaking in natural springs.

“Our focus is on being ready when we can welcome back visitors from Canada, and around the world, when international restrictions are lifted,” Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando said in a statement to Yahoo Canada.

“Since Orlando is a popular destination for Canadians in the winter months, we are hopeful that we’ll see changes implemented in time for winter travel to our sunny and warm destination.”

Vacation on the beach in California. Ocean View.

Vacation on the beach in California. Ocean View.

Canada is also a significant international travel market for California. Before the pandemic, 1.7 million Canadians visited the U.S. state and spent around US$2.3 billion there, about 11 per cent of California’s international visitor spend. Another key warmer weather destination for Canadians who like outdoor activities and road trips, including beaches, iconic local cuisine and Hollywood-inspired attractions.

“The loss of most international travel, including from Canada, has been significant: International travel accounted for about one-fifth of visitor spending in California in 2019, and was the state’s largest export,” Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California said in a statement to Yahoo Canada.

“California’s tourism industry supports efforts by the U.S. Travel Association to encourage the reopening of borders when it is safe to do so.”

These U.S. destinations are also examples of why, in order for Canada’s tourism industry to recover as quickly and as strong as possible, Canadians need to think ‘Canada-first’ when it comes to their next trip.

“The pandemic reduced travel spending in California by 55 per cent in 2020, but the sector is coming back strong,” Beteta said. “The latest projections show a full recovery by 2024, but pent-up demand, a robust destination marketing campaign and more Californians inspired to travel in state could hasten the recovery.”

“Orlando’s tourism industry recovery continues to gain momentum as we head into a summer travel season that could potentially meet or exceed 2019 levels,” Matej explained. “To potentially reach those levels this summer, even with international restrictions still in place, indicates positive signs of continued recovery for Orlando’s tourism industry amid tremendous pent-up demand among our U.S. leisure visitors.”

According to Destinations Canada, if Canadians shift two-thirds of what they would normally spend on international tourism in a year domestically, it could make up for a $19 billion shortfall in the Canadian industry.

“Canadians can make a difference, we actually are awesome travellers, the challenge is everybody wants Canadians to come visit because we do travel, we do spend and we are great guests,” Bruce said.

Now is the summer to do it because we will find that when things do open up more freely there is tremendous pent up demand for Canada, and specifically for places like Banff and Lake Louise, and so if people want to experience it without crowding,…I think that’s how we make it attractive.Leslie Bruce, President and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise tourism

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