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 here 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.'”
ArriveCAN was introduced early in the pandemic as a COVID-19 safety measure. Travellers must use it to submit their vaccination information within 72 hours before their arrival in Canada.
The app has already had bad press in Canada, where some travellers have complained it’s inconvenient, has glitches and isn’t user friendly for seniors.
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 ArriceCAN, 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) announced that foreign travellers who arrive at the land border unaware of the app will get a one-time pass into the country.
But Diodati says the reprieve won’t help, because travellers still must fill out the app 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.”
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.