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

A U.S.-Canada border crossing station in New York state seen from Lacolle, Quebec. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The Canadians are coming. And Christine Tiger, for one, is excited.

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. The holiday once inspired a surge of visitors to cross the border to slurp wine slushies. But for the second consecutive year, their travel was impeded by pandemic border restrictions.

“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. (Video: Reuters)

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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. “We know there’s going to be a bump in southbound traffic,” he said, “but we know it’s going to be limited. 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. Trade and the movement of essential workers continued. The curbs strained personal relationships, hit the tourism industry and upended life in border communities in ways large and small.

Travel ban will end Nov. 8 for international visitors who show proof of vaccination, negative coronavirus test

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. But the United States declined to reciprocate, a decision that deepened frustration, particularly in communities reliant on day-trippers, shoppers or tourism. (The United States always allowed Canadians to enter by air for nonessential travel.)

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. They made up two-thirds of Canada’s tourist arrivals. Most traveled 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.

Some Canadian businesses want to let Americans back in. Most Canadians don’t.

“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. He attributed this primarily to the testing requirement but also said some people might have firmed up their holiday plans well before Canada announced it was easing the curbs on its side.

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. The structure, an observation tower, has been closed for the season.

“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. Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), co-chairman of the congressional Northern Border Caucus, is among them.

“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.”

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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. Passenger traffic at the land border has not fully recovered from those restrictions.

“The risk we have is that people will change their habits,” Jean Charest, a former deputy prime minister and former Québec 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. The panel released a report recommending that the next time a pandemic strikes, their countries should aim to manage risks at the border, not try to eliminate them altogether.

“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. “Yet the existence of a significant number of people affected acutely by these restrictions is clear as well. 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.

Read more:

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