Canadians to American Tourists: (Please) Stay Away!
The Canadian tourism industry is reeling, but pandemic-weary Canadians show little desire to open the borders.
Ever since Canada closed its borders last March to help contain the coronavirus pandemic, many Canadians have had this message for American visitors: “We miss you, but please stay away!”
Such is the alarm about American tourists crossing the border that some Canadians driving cars with U.S. license plates in British Columbia have been harassed, have had their cars vandalized, and have even braved assaults by fellow Canadians who mistook them for Americans who had crossed the border illegally, the police said.
The Canadian tourism industry is in crisis; armed with their strong dollars and consuming zeal, American visitors pumped about $11 billion into the Canadian economy in 2019, outspending Chinese tourists about sixfold, and spending more than eight times what British tourists spent. Pre-pandemic, Canada was Americans’ second most popular foreign destination after Mexico.
But do we still miss the Americans, long drawn to Canada by, among other things, Montreal’s cosmopolitan and libertine spirit, Vancouver’s stunning natural beauty, and Quebec City’s European flair?
Over the past few weeks, I set out to tackle this question for The Times’s Travel section, speaking to hotel owners, museum directors, restaurateurs, government officials, and residents of popular Canadian destinations across the country.
As is often the case when it comes to stories about our bigger southern cousin, this one generated an avalanche of reader comments from both Canadians and Americans.
Among them was a mix of mutual admiration, mutual sniping, and, more often than not, American wistfulness for the days when traveling across the border required little more than hopping in a car. (Judging by the number of Canadian snowbirds traveling to Florida and other American destinations, despite the hassles and risks, the lonesomeness is reciprocated.)
Lucia Dashnaw of Buffalo wrote that she and her husband used to travel to Montreal for retail therapy and restaurants and that her husband was preserving his pandemic ponytail until the border reopened. “We remain true to Martin, our hairdresser!” she proclaimed.
“I miss Canada,” wrote R. Anderson of North Carolina. “From Lunenburg and the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia to Jasper, Vancouver, and Victoria plus Niagara By The Lake to its moderate people, Canada is what I wish for our U.S.”
But Al, from Kingston, Ontario, warned that Canadian longing for American visitors shouldn’t be exaggerated. “Meh. We miss their money, sure,” he wrote, before adding that Canadians were not “starry-eyed little children marveling at the wealth and sophistication of those legendary Americans.” Ouch.
Jeff from New York City weighed in, observing that Canada’s vaccination rate was lagging the United States’, and that “Guess what? Americans are in no rush to go to Canada.”
While recent polls show that the vast majority of Canadians support keeping the borders closed to nonessential visitors, the absence of Americans has certainly been felt in Montreal, where I reside.
In the city’s Old Port, the gaggles of Americans walking the old cobblestone streets are conspicuously absent, kept away by a lethal pandemic and, no doubt, the frigid cold. Gone too are the gastronomy tourists from New York, Vermont or Maine in Little Burgundy, a neighborhood peppered with upmarket restaurants that was once known as “the Harlem of the North.”
“Everything seems dead since the Americans left,” David McMillan, co-owner of the area’s fabled restaurant Joe Beef, told me, lamenting how the pandemic had changed the city’s social fabric. “There is no one on the streets at night, no noise, there is parking,” he said. “Montreal feels like a village rather than a city.”
Mélanie Joly, Canada’s minister of economic development, who is responsible for tourism, told me that the reopening of the borders would depend on scientific health advice and the success of vaccination in taming the virus. Meanwhile, she said the government was encouraging Canadians to view their own cities as vacation spots.
“Canada misses the Americans, we do,” she said. “Our job is to make sure that Canadians are safe, and we aren’t there yet.”
Frederic Dimanche, the director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, told me that the support for keeping the borders closed in Canada had been accompanied by a level of “travel-shaming,” in particular over the summer, not seen in other countries like France and the United States.
Writing in the Travel section this summer, my colleague Karen Schwartz, who has dual Canadian-American citizenship and hoped to visit her octogenarian father in Calgary, observed that there had been “so many reports of intimidation of Americans entering Canada that the premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, reminded angry Canadians to ‘Be Calm. Be Kind.’”
As the police began to clamp down with tickets and fines, she wrote that Alberta’s “most troublesome scofflaw thus far is a fellow from Alaska who was so determined to enjoy Banff with a woman from Calgary that he’d met online” that he was slapped with two fines in June.
By Dan Bilefsky