Post-pandemic, tourists have returned to Niagara Falls.
But something’s missing — a lot of Americans, even though the popular Ontario tourist destination sits right next to the U.S. border.
“It’s devastating,” said Anna Pierce, vice president of Niagara Helicopters, which offers rides over the falls.
Pierce says bookings are down 35 per cent this summer compared to the summer of 2019, largely due to the lack of American tourists.
“No matter what [marketing] you do in the U.S., you’re not convincing these people to come,” she said.
Now that Canada has lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions, travel is making a comeback. But the number of road trips Americans made to the country over the past two months was still down by 45 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, according to Statistics Canada.
That decline is taking its toll on Niagara Falls.
“When you talk to any businesses in town, they’ll tell you there’s a very small amount of American dollars coming in,” said Mayor Jim Diodati.
“It’s been hurtful, especially after two years of COVID.”
What’s keeping Americans away? There could be many factors, such as Canada’s vaccine mandate for foreign travellers and the lingering effects of the pandemic.
“There’s certainly a relatively slow rebound coming out of the pandemic,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
“I think people have changed their consumer habits. They’ve changed their vacation habits.”
But the mayor, along with several business owners in Niagara Falls, told CBC News they believe the ArriveCAN app is a big deterrent for American road travellers. Consequently, they’re calling on the federal government to scrap the app, or at least make it optional.
“I talked to Americans,” said Diodati. “They’re saying, ‘Just bypass Canada. It’s easier to go to Europe than come to Canada.'”
WATCH | Why the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., wants to scrap ArriveCAN:
‘It doesn’t keep us safer’: Niagara Falls mayor wants to scrap the ArriveCan app.
‘It’s time to get rid of this extra level of red tape at our borders,’ said Mayor of Niagara Falls Jim Diodati. He blames the app requirement for a drop in American travellers and says it should be made ‘voluntary.’
ArriveCAN was introduced early in the pandemic as a COVID-19 safety measure. People must use it to submit their travel and vaccination information within 72 hours before entering Canada.
Pierce says the app is also causing problems for would-be tourists.
She says several American customers have contacted her company to cancel their bookings because they learned at the border they had to use ArriveCAN, got overwhelmed when trying to download or complete it, and bailed.
“They just kind of say, ‘You know what, it’s not worth it, sorry, see you later,'” said Pierce.
Ottawa defends app
On July 29, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) altered the rules so that foreigners who arrive at the land border unaware of the app get a one-time pass into the country.
But Diodati says the reprieve won’t help, because travellers must still fill out ArriveCAN on subsequent visits.
“That’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “Tourists are like water. They take the path of least resistance. It’s just easier to not come here, and many have already made the choice.”
WATCH | Fewer Americans are driving to Canada:
Fewer Americans driving to Canada, ArriveCAN a factor
Experts say a number of factors are keeping Americans from making road trips to Canada, including changing habits over the course of the pandemic. But many say having to use the ArriveCAN app to provide vaccination status before crossing the border is a big deterrent.
This week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra defended ArriveCAN saying it reduces wait times at the border.
“Given the fact that we require a vaccine certificate to cross to enter Canada, without it, the process of verification would be manual,” he said at a news conference in Windsor, Ont. “This tool is helpful and it really does enhance efficiency.”
However, the Customs and Immigration Union which represents CBSA officers has said that the app can lead to congestion, because officers have to spend time helping challenged travellers fill it out.
What do the Americans say?
Some Americans visiting the falls this week told CBC News they had no issues with the app.
“It was very easy to fill out. There’s nothing to it,” said Madhuri Reddy, a dual Canadian-American citizen who drove to Niagara Falls from her home just outside Boston.
She said her Canadian parents forewarned her about the app requirement beforehand.
But Matt Myford, who never made it to Niagara Falls, says he had a different experience.
He and his wife, Mandy spontaneously decided to visit Niagara Falls for a few hours during a road trip to Buffalo, N.Y., in June. He said they had never heard about ArriveCAN until they approached the border.
“We saw the signs on the highway, something about Arrive — something, so we Googled it,” said Myford who lives just outside Pittsburgh, Pa.
The couple downloaded the app and struggled to fill it out, because it asked for a Canadian address, which they didn’t have. Nevertheless, they eventually managed to complete it and lined up at the border.
But because traffic was backed up and barely moving, the couple bailed on their plans. Myford says they likely won’t attempt another visit to Canada until the app is dropped, or at least waived for day trippers.
“It did leave a bitter taste in our mouth,” he said.
Canada’s remaining travel restrictions, including the ArriveCAN requirement, are set to stay in place until at least Sept. 30.
Alghabra says he’s assessing feedback of the app, but gave no indication it could be dropped.
“We’re listening and we’re working with our stakeholders,” he said. “I don’t have an announcement yet.”
The government is currently rolling out a new feature on ArriveCAN which allows travellers to submit their customs declaration digitally. That feature is optional.