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Rachel Klassen shows American tourists Lonnie Dressen, left, and Mildred Dickson how to operate the printing press at the Mennonite Heritage Village outside Steinbach, Man., on Aug 15, 2006. (John Woods)
Rachel Klassen shows American tourists Lonnie Dressen, left, and Mildred Dickson how to operate the printing press at the Mennonite Heritage Village outside Steinbach, Man., on Aug 15, 2006. (John Woods)

Cross-border travel hits record low Add to ...

New passport rules are keeping Americans at home, with June numbers showing that travel to Canada from the United States fell to its lowest level since Statistics Canada started tracking cross-border trips in 1972.

The number of same-day car trips from the United States was down 26 per cent in June from May, while the overall number of U.S. tourists plummeted to about half of what it was five years ago.

The dramatic drop in travel across the Canada-U.S. border shows that the fears of many in the tourism industry in both countries are coming to pass. After the tougher passport rules were announced in 2005 as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, many industry groups warned that the regulations would further discourage Americans already reluctant to travel due to the high dollar and gas prices.

Efforts by provincial ministers and groups to lobby the U.S. government to scrap the program in favour of introducing more sophisticated ID cards were unsuccessful. As of last year, about 70 per cent of Canada's $75-billion tourism industry depended on U.S. travel.

At the Seacrest Motel and RV Park near Surrey, B.C., manager Nina Bartnick has already seen the number of U.S. vacationers plummet, with fewer and fewer coming from the Peace Arch border crossing a few kilometres away. Last summer, and for many summers past, Ms. Bartnick could count on Americans for the bulk of her business, as most spent a night or two on their way to Vancouver, checking in to rest up after a long drive and take a dip at nearby White Rock Beach.

This summer, just 10 per cent of her business has been from Americans, down from 60 per cent, Ms. Bartnick said. "It used to be normal to see American license plates," she said. "But now I see one and I think, 'Oh look, it's an American!'"

She's not alone, she said. "We all keep in touch in this area, all the hotels and motels, and we all noticed there was quite a difference all around."

At the Perkins Restaurant and Bakery in Niagara Falls, Ont., it's much the same story. General manager Steve Roussell said that about half the restaurant's customers usually come from the United States. But he estimates that this summer, U.S. visitors have dropped to about 20 per cent of the total.

Like Ms. Bartnick, Mr. Roussell tracks his roadside restaurant's clientele by licence plate. "All Ontario and Quebec plates this summer," he said. "Very few American plates."

A more concerted effort on the part of Niagara's tourist bureau to advertise in Canada and help drive local traffic to his doors might help, he said.

The passport rules appear to have triggered the sharp fall-off. But other factors, including the recession and the higher Canadian dollar have also dampened Americans' enthusiasm for travelling north.

Travel from the United States hit a peak in 2002, when about 43 million Americans crossed the border, but since then, it has eroded. One reason for the decline in recent years, said Randy Williams, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, was the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Two years ago, passports became mandatory for cross-border air travel, and the original plan would have required passports for land crossings as of Jan. 1, 2008.

While that was delayed, confusion over the need for travel documents kept some people home, Mr. Williams said.

"Only about 30 per cent of Americans have a passport, so that limits the number we can attract into Canada," he said.

Earlier this year, the tourism association estimated that Canada's tourism industry would contract by between 3 per cent and 5 per cent. Recently, the group revised its forecast based on the poor season, and now expects revenue to shrink by up to 10 per cent, Mr. Williams said.

The UN World Tourism Organization is forecasting a decrease of between 4 per cent and 6 per cent in international tourism in 2009 due to the economic slump.

Some tourism-dependent businesses took steps to get ahead of the passport rule changes. The Shaw Theatre Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., has been looking for ways to hold on to U.S. theatregoers, who make up nearly 40 per cent of their audience, said festival spokeswoman Odette Yazbeck.

Two years ago, the festival started alerting theatregoers to the pending passport rules through links on its website and a survey. The poll found 75 to 80 per cent of Americans in attendance already had passports.

"Our American audience comes from border states and they were aware of the changes," Ms. Yazbeck said. "The kind of patron the Shaw attracts tends to be a well-travelled group. Where we'll see a dip in American audiences are people who travel in a group and are from further afield."

Still, Ms. Yazbeck credits those efforts for keeping the U.S. audience from collapsing. While festival attendance is down about 10 per cent from last year, visits from Americans have held steady.

With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny

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