The U.S. is finally reopening its land border to Canadians — but Canada’s rules are likely to deter many

The Canadians are coming. Christine Tiger is one of them.

On Monday, for the first time in more than 19 months, fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed to cross the U.S. land border for such nonessential purposes as tourism or family visits.

Tiger, a manager at the Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., noted their absence last month during Canada’s Thanksgiving. Once upon a time, the holiday inspired many to travel across borders to enjoy wine slushies. Pandemic border restrictions hampered their journey for the second year in succession.

“We can’t wait,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing them again.”

But although the reopening is being cheered in the tightknit communities that straddle the 5,500-mile border — and by the Canadian snowbirds who prefer to drive South to warmer climes — few are expecting an immediate flood of tourists.

Delta Air Lines said in the six weeks since the U.S. reopening was announced, it has seen a 450% increase in international bookings from the previous six weeks. (Reuters)

That’s in part because those entering Canada — including Canadians returning from even the briefest of visits on the American side — must present a negative coronavirus molecular test result within 72 hours of arrival. Lawmakers, businesses and residents say the costly requirement — some tests are $200 — will deter the day-trippers, shoppers and families for which their economies have yearned.

“It’s exciting, but we’re also realistic,” said Corey Fram, the director of tourism for the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council. He said that although there will be some traffic increase in the southbound, it is likely to be minimal. It’s not where we want to be just yet.”

Drew Dilkens, the mayor of Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, told a local radio station last month that the testing requirement would dissuade the kind of short cross-border trips that are common there, for celebrating a family birthday or watching a Detroit Lions game.

“If you just want to head over for a funeral or to visit someone in the hospital, the expectation is you’re going to have to pay $200 to have a PCR test to return to Canada,” he said. “I think for most that’s going to be a deal killer.”

Canada and the United States closed their land border to nonessential travel in March 2020. The movement of vital workers and trade continued. These restrictions caused friction in personal relationships and impacted the tourism sector. They also disrupted life in small border communities.

Canadians initially backed the restrictions as they watched the cases of covid-19 surge south of the border. But as one month turned to six and then 12, pressure mounted among some lawmakers, business groups and residents in both countries to begin relaxing the controls.

Canada welcomed fully vaccinated Americans in August. The United States refused to reciprocate. This was a frustrating decision, especially for communities that depend on tourists, day-trippers and shoppers. The United States allowed Canadians to travel by plane for non-essential purposes. )

Land traffic into Canada this year is higher than it was in 2020 but remains below pre-pandemic levels.

In 2019, about 15 million tourists visited Canada from the United States, according to Statistics Canada. Two-thirds (33%) of Canada’s tourists came from the USA. The most popular mode of travel was by car.

From Aug. 9, when Canada began allowing fully vaccinated Americans to cross its land border, to Oct. 24, the most recent date for which data is available, there were an average of roughly 167,500 noncommercial crossings per week, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. That’s 15 percent of the average volume over the same period in 2019.

“Even though we did in early August open up the borders to American visitors … we definitely did not see any huge impact or a real change,” said Bill Stewart, the executive director of the 1000 Islands Chamber of Commerce in Gananoque, Ontario.

Many of the Americans who have crossed have been people with relatives or cottages in Canada, he said; far fewer have been day-trippers. This was due to Canada’s testing requirements, but he also suggested that some Americans might have made plans for their holidays long before Canada released its curbs.

Heidi Linckh, co-owner of the 1000 Islands Tower in Lansdowne, Ontario, said the 400-foot-tall tourist attraction has not been flooded with American visitors. For the remainder of the season, the observation tower has been shut down.

“We did not have any day-trip visitors and only a couple of regular tourists,” Linckh said. “It seemed the majority came to reunite with family or [check] on their Canadian properties.”

Some business groups and lawmakers have urged Canada to drop the test requirement. Representative Brian Higgins, a member of Congress from New York (Co-chairman for the congressional Northern Border Caucus), is one such representative.

“In border communities such as western New York and southern Ontario, the local economies depend on the free flow of goods and people across the border, often multiple times per day,” he wrote in an Oct. 29 letter to Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States. “The expectation that fully vaccinated Canadians and Americans will be able to afford multiple tests per week for the indefinite future to go about their business ignores the economic reality.”

Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said last week that the testing requirement is being looked at “quite carefully.”

Some officials have worried that the prolonged curbs at the border could have longer-lasting impacts on travel patterns that will be difficult to unwind. They point to controls imposed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The restrictions on land-border passenger traffic have not completely reverted to normal.

“The risk we have is that people will change their habits,” Jean Charest, a former deputy prime minister and former Quebec premier, said at an event hosted by the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington last month. “There’s going to be a consequence, and there’s going to be … some scars, and some of it could have been avoided.”

Charest was part of a task force assembled by the think tank, with another former deputy prime minister and former governors of border states. Their countries should focus on managing risks at their borders, and not trying to eradicate them entirely, the panel recommended.

“It is clear to us that the border restrictions were instituted in a good-faith effort to protect the public,” the panel said in its report. It is also clear that there are a lot of people who have been affected by the restrictions. The border … is too diverse for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy to be sustainable over time.”

Fram, of the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council, is looking forward to seeing more Ontario license plates.

“I never would have believed back in March of 2020 that we’d still be here,” he said.

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