Crossing the Peace Bridge on Canada Day or July 4, a decades-old tradition for residents on both sides of the border, remains a complicated challenge this holiday weekend.
Last week the Canadian government extended until September 30 the requirement for visitors to complete its confusing ArriveCan app for Covid-19 concerns, and as a result the summer tourist season looks doomed for the third consecutive year. Reluctant travellers, it seems, just don’t want to deal with ArriveCan.
The U.S.-Canada border will open a little more from Monday, as Canada relaxes its requirement that most visiting children must be vaccinated and drops its mandate that vaccinated visitors provide a quarantine plan in case where they would fall with Covid-19.
Now officials and stakeholders in Buffalo, Fort Erie, Ontario, Niagara Falls, NY and Niagara Falls, Ontario, as well as across the 3,000-mile border, are voicing concern that borders on outrage. Local economies that rely on cross-border traffic, they say, continue to suffer from restrictions that have long since become unnecessary as levels of Covid-19 decline.
Niagara Falls, one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, still scores anemic cross-border visits due to requirements such as entering vaccination status and exact travel destinations into the app. The Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission are reporting plummeting revenue from traffic levels that are about half of pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Ditto for duty-free stores. And many travelers eager to renew their normal visits across the border are simply turning to other alternatives, discouraged by Ottawa’s continued demands.
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“At a time when most people are returning to some semblance of normalcy, border communities in the United States and Canada are not where they should be,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “It’s the start of the travel season for 2022 and we still have all this redundancy and hurdles that we need to get rid of.”
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Higgins has become one of the most vocal critics of the policy, even broaching the subject with Canada’s prime minister and his ambassador in Washington. He says the latest statistics show a decrease of 70,000 vehicle crossings per month at the Peace Bridge, proving that travelers are avoiding cross-border travel due to the ArriveCan requirement. The border experience, he says, only works if travelers can cross hassle-free and in a reasonable time.
“It’s all been washed away,” Higgins said, noting that travelers avoid the ArriveCan hassle. “People will just do different things.”
His concerns resonate in Ottawa. Tony Baldinelli, the Conservative MP for Niagara Falls, is furious after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government extended the requirement for the duration of the summer. He points out that 40,000 people in the Niagara region work in the tourism industry, that summer accounts for 75% of annual revenue and that 50% of visitors to the region are from the United States.
“So why set up this deterrent for our American friends to come?” he asks. “It’s unbelievable that this Liberal government continues to ignore this. Instead, they continue to put up barriers like ArriveCan that tie a hand of the tourism industry behind their back.”
Ottawa announced on Wednesday that the ArriveCan requirement will continue, dashing the hopes of many on both sides of the border for an end in time for the holiday weekend. But Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Covid-19 remained a concern.
As of 12:01 a.m. Monday, people entering Canada will no longer have to present proof of a negative PCR test for Covid-19. Instead, they will need to show proof of passing either a PCR test or an approved rapid antigen test administered by a laboratory.
“As we enter the next phase of our response to Covid-19, it is important to remember that the pandemic is not over,” he said in a statement this week. “We must continue to do everything we can to keep ourselves and others safe from the virus.
But Baldinelli, a member of the House Committee on International Trade, points to transcripts of recent Ottawa hearings that highlight concerns across Canada. Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told the committee that tourism spending is down 50% from pre-pandemic levels, the number of foreign travelers overnight had fallen by 89% and the industry had lost 400,000 jobs. . She estimates that Canada’s tourism industry may not return to 2019 levels until 2026.
Potter also reminded the committee that proof of vaccination is no longer required on public transport, in stadiums or in restaurants across the country.
“Travel and tourism is the only industry that still has restrictions associated with participation in the activity,” she said. “All the other industries in the economy don’t.”
Mayors of Canada’s border communities, including Jim Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ontario, also join the chorus. He told Canada’s National Observer at a press conference in Ottawa last month that the mandatory use of the Canada Border Services Agency’s online app or portal had lost its usefulness.
“We all supported the federal government with all the border restrictions,” Diodati said then. “But science now tells us that these border restrictions no longer serve us.”
Additionally, the two international bodies governing border crossings on the Niagara River fear major financial problems if normal traffic levels do not resume soon. Ron Rienas, chief executive of the Peace Bridge Authority, said crossings remain 44% lower than normal, even after the Canadian government lifted testing requirements in April. Similar declines are being reported by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, he said.
“So people don’t cross the border, even if they can,” Rienas said.
In a submission to parliament last month, Rienas said the continued demands had had “a devastating impact on our toll revenues, the tourism industry and other border-dependent businesses such as duty-free shops”. He said most U.S. travelers are unaware of ArriveCan and often have to meet border requirements, resulting in excessively long processing times and check-ins.
Rienas also told parliament that the technology discriminates against older people unfamiliar with computers and smart phones, and discourages discretionary travel familiar to a border community.
“The nature of this bi-national community is to be able to cross paths frequently to visit friends or family, for dinner, a show, a winery tour, a baseball game, shopping, going to the beach, etc., without going through the process and inconvenience of having to file with ArriveCan every time,” he said. “People just won’t bother crossing the border for discretionary travel as they have done for decades.”
Higgins, meanwhile, noted that the drop in bridge traffic is also affecting U.S. interests, including Buffalo and Niagara Falls airports, professional sports franchises and retailers used to a binational economy. He suggests that Trudeau and President Biden personally discuss solutions to the problem, as any effort below their level has so far failed.
“After all,” he said, “we are not enemies.”