The United States border is about a 30 minute drive from Palatine Hills Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. During the peak summer season, American tourists can account for as much as a quarter of the winery’s guest traffic. But for more than 16 months, Palatine has been largely devoid of U.S. visitors, who have been unable to drive across the border for leisure travel.
“As soon as the borders shut, that dried up to zero,” said Thomas Reid, the winery’s operations manager. “That had a significant impact on our bottom line, without question.” He’s now hopeful Americans will start making the journey again starting Monday, when Canada opens its land borders to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
The 8,900-kilometre border between the two countries has been closed for non-essential travel since March, 2020. The reopening promises at least some relief to businesses and tourist destinations that have been hollowed out during the pandemic. However, many are keeping their expectations in check. Businesses do not anticipate an immediate flood of American tourists and are projecting a slow recovery, with some industry associations saying federal government support will be necessary into next year.
“I’m a lot more cautiously optimistic about a gradual increase than a massive uptick right away,” Mr. Reid said.
Americans make up the largest group of international arrivals to Canada, accounting for nearly 15 million visits and $11-billion in spending in 2019, according to Destination Canada, a Crown corporation that promotes tourism. Visits plummeted last year, with just under two million arrivals from the United States. Destination Canada forecasts U.S. visitors will bring in $800-million in spending this year and $5-billion in 2022.
The pandemic obliterated more than $50-billion in tourism spending in Canada, while employment in the sector fell dramatically. As of the first quarter of the year, employment generated by tourism is still more than 35 per cent below prepandemic levels, according to Statistics Canada.
Despite the bleak backdrop, the reopening of the border creates a brief but unique opportunity for tourism operators: Americans can travel here, but the U.S. land border is still closed to non-essential travel until August 21. “We’re trying to take advantage of that situation where we’re helping to encourage more and more domestic travel, while we also welcome back Americans,” says Beth Potter, president and chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
When the federal government first announced the easing of border restrictions in July, Ms. Potter said businesses reported an increase in enquiries and reservations from U.S. residents. “It really did confirm there was a bit of a pent-up demand,” she said. “I know business operators are hoping to capture as much of the remaining summer season as they can.”
Americans have collectively saved about US$1.6-trillion during the pandemic, and forecasts and surveys show households are eager to spend on travel. Destination Canada is trying to tap into that demand, and has been advertising in U.S. markets since last November to try to ensure Canada is on the radar for travellers. The organization is planning additional social media and broadcast campaigns later this month, projecting the content will reach some 40 million Americans between July and September.
Harvest Hosts is betting some of those Americans will roll over the border in recreational vehicles. The U.S.-based company offers a membership program for RVers, partnering with businesses to allow campers to stay overnight at their facilities. The company works with some 220 businesses in Canada, including farms, breweries and museums.
In July, Harvest Hosts partners in Canada saw a 29-per-cent increase in booking requests for dates after the border reopening, which the company believes has been driven by Americans.
“The U.S. outdoor activity scene is just so crowded these days,” said Wes Clark, the company’s chief of staff, “so we think people are going to continue to push farther and farther out.”
While the border reopening is cause for optimism, Tony Elenis, CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, said many businesses will continue to suffer. “This industry has been hurting and it will take longer to recover,” he said. As such, federal government support programs, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, will be needed into next year, Mr. Elenis said. The eligibility period for both programs ends on October 23.
Rocky Mountaineer, a rail-tour company with routes in Western Canada, does not project a recovery in its business until at least 2024. Still, enquiries and bookings for this year and the next have been up significantly since the border announcement. U.S. sales for 2022 are outpacing prepandemic levels by about 30 per cent.
Rocky Mountaineer could also increase its marketing activities in the U.S. “Budgets are incredibly limited after months without revenue,” said Nicole Ford, director of communications, “but it’s definitely a consideration now that borders are opening.”
A spokesperson for Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, meanwhile, said the region is targeting the winter holiday season to start attracting more Americans. “The U.S. market is very significant to our tourism economy here in Banff and Lake Louise, and we look forward to welcoming them,” said Angela Anderson via e-mail.
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