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Border: Bridge or barrier?
US tourists staying away from Canada
By Sharon Kiley Mack
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTOS BY GABOR DEGRE
David McVay (center) and his wife, Caroline (far right), own a barbershop in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. They said that they don’t travel to the U.S. as frequently as they used to. “It’s a combination of a few things. It was a long wait at the border crossing, the economy and gas prices. Plus people don’t like to be questioned at the border,” David McVay said as he cut Bill Foster’s hair. “The U.S. has gone from fighting terrorism to just plain fighting. America has turned into a fortress.”
ST. STEPHEN, New Brunswick — Jeff McShane, 43, has a pretty sweet job as the manager of the Ganong Chocolatier just over the border from Calais, Maine.
“I deal with tourists every day,” he said recently.
But over the last four years, McShane has watched the number of American tourists in his shop plummet from 80 percent of his business to less than 50 percent.
“Since 9-11, since the border restrictions have been in place, it has been more and more difficult for U.S. travelers to get back into their own country,” he said. “We used to have lots of U.S. customers. Now it is totally the other way around. Our customers are mostly Canadian.”
According to the Canadian Tourism Commission, Canada’s tourism receipts overall in 2009 were down 3 percent to $16 billion, while visits from Americans dropped by 9 percent.
The final quarter of 2009 was even worse, when American visits dropped by 12 percent.
“Americans were behind a large part of this change due to 2 million fewer trips to Canada,” a study by the commission reported.
“You Americans are the cause of the drop,” McShane said. “We Canadians have increased our trips.”
While no one can say for certain whether it is the stricter border restrictions or the economy that has Americans turning around at the border, anecdotally it appears that many people are not willing to spend the money for the documents now required to enter, or re-enter the U.S. — either a passport costing $100 or a passcard for $45. For a family of four on vacation, passport purchases could add an additional $180 to $400 to their vacation expenses.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, these are now required identification when entering the U.S. as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The initiative requires U.S. and Canadian travelers to present a passport or other document that indicates identity and citizenship when entering the U.S. According to the Homeland Security Web site, “The goal of WHTI is to facilitate entry for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors, while strengthening U.S. border security. Standard documents will enable the Department of Homeland Security to quickly and reliably identify a traveler.”
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect June 1, 2009, for land and sea travel into the U.S. Travel initiative document requirements for air travel went into effect in 2007.
In addition to passports and passcards, several other forms of identification can be used such as enhanced driver’s licenses and Trusted Traveler Program Cards issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Maine does not issue enhanced driver’s licenses.
Fewer entries into Maine
Anecdotal and statistical evidence may indicate that stricter border requirements curb travel, though officials demur.
A case in point is the contrast of the number of visitors to the Franklin D. Roosevelt International Park on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, and the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec — two major Down East tourist destinations that are just six miles apart.
Since the new border restrictions took effect, the free international park has lost an average of 50,000 visitors a year, dropping from 150,000 in 2005 to 100,000 last year.
Yet the lighthouse — a short drive away — has gained visitors.
Debora Bridges, the manager of the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse Visitors Center, said that in 2005, 18,630 people visited the lighthouse and the surrounding park. In 2009, 19,311 people came.
She said she saw no decrease in visitors from Canada, but she heard from many American visitors that they were not going on to Campobello or New Brunswick because of the border requirements.
“I talk to hundreds of people a day at the center, and [some] tell me they just decided not to get [a passcard or passport],” Bridges said. “They told me they don’t live near any other border, and they don’t intend to pay for something they will never use again.
“I’m 100 percent sure that the drop in visitors to Canada from Maine is because of the passport issue,” she said.
Statistics provided by U.S. Homeland Security and the Canadian Border Services Agency detail the decrease.
The numbers of passenger vehicles coming into Maine from Canada — which would include returning U.S. visitors — have dropped over the past four years at every single border crossing. Crossings into Van Buren were down by 105,841 vehicles; Madawaska was down by 153,366; Jackman had 40,000 fewer vehicles come through.
Nowhere are the numbers more telling than at Calais, a traditional tourist route that links the Maritime Provinces and the Bay of Fundy with Down East Maine and New England.
At Calais, 253,754 fewer vehicles came in from Canada in 2009 compared to 2005 — 890,247 compared to 1.174 million four years earlier.
The numbers from the Canadian side show the trend.
The Canadian Border Services Agency said 166,610 fewer cars crossed into Canada at Calais last year than in 2005 — 576,372 compared to 742,987.
Joanne Ferreira, a Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson, said she doubted the border regulations were affecting the number of border crossings.
“Travel and tourism has been down everywhere for five years, not just after the requirements went into effect,” she said Monday.
“The requirements are the law to secure our borders,” she said. “Based on your travel needs, there are options. The passcards are easy to get and less expensive than passports, and many travelers already have enhanced driver’s licenses.”
She added that “there could be other factors [affecting border crossings] such as the economy and the weather. The border crossing identification regulations could be one factor, but not the only one.”
Pat Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said she was unaware of the border crossing statistics and could not comment.
Looking from the entrance to the Ganong Chocolate Museum in St. Stephen, director Diane Lombard can see the U.S. and the Ferry Point border crossing at Calais. But what Lombard does not see are American tourists.
“The number of American tourists visiting the museum is down by at least 30 to 35 percent,” she said. “Our total visitor numbers have increased, but those are Canadian visitors.”
Lombard said U.S. travelers used to be a large part of the museum's market. “But we have noticed the shift to more people from New Brunswick and Quebec, so we have shifted our marketing,” she said.
The museum no longer advertises in Maine publications or pays for a kiosk at the Bangor Mall.
“We used to see bus tours from the U.S. stopping here all the time,” she said. “But that has dropped to a handful.”
With the Canadian dollar nearly at par with the U.S. dollar recently, some travelers may not see the advantage of spending their money in Canada.
“When it was 50 cents on the dollar, well, the Americans couldn't spend enough here,” Lombard said. “But it is not to their advantage now that we are nearly at par.”
This turn of events could be interpreted as a boon for Maine's tourism economy as New Englanders and Mainers stay closer to home, stopping short of the border.
Figures released at the end of last year indicate an 8 percent increase in both day use and overnight camping at Maine's state parks in 2009, the largest increase in seven years. More than 2.34 million visitors came to the parks in 2009, 165,000 more visits than in 2008, according to the state Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Spokesperson Jeanne Curran said recently that Canadians make up the second-largest out-of-state group of visitors to the parks.
Meanwhile, retailers in the Bangor area say Canadians continue to visit and spend money.
“The Canadian traffic here has been a lifesaver in this economy,” Karen Cole, director of the Bangor Area Chamber of Commerce, said recently.
Still, many believe that economics is just a part of the total picture.
Vernon McKimmey, director of the FDR park at Campobello, said increased security and the passport requirements have had an impact on the international park's attendance.
He recalled a time several years ago when a tour bus full of senior citizens who just had spent the day at the park were stopped at the U.S. border and held for more than two hours as U.S. customs agents searched the bus and luggage.
“Word of those kinds of events spreads quickly in the tourism industry,” he said. “I'll bet not one of those people will return to Canada.”
“It's definitely the passport issue,” Daniel McVay of St. Stephen said.
He said the questioning at the border has become tougher and more aggressive. “You have gone from fighting terrorism to just plain fighting. You've turned America into a fortress, and your own people find it a hassle to get back in.”