These are uncertain times for Washingtonians with family or business ties across the Canadian border.
Pandemic travel restrictions between U.S. and Canada, in place since March, will be extended through Dec. 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday. Given America’s rising COVID-19 case count, it’s far from clear when those restrictions might end. As Trudeau noted last month, the U.S. “is not in a place where we would feel comfortable reopening those borders.”
Yet despite those mounting uncertainties, a top Canadian diplomat is urging Washingtonians not to despair about the future of the state’s most economically vital border.
Although “we have a little bit of a path to go” before restrictions can be lifted, cross-border tourism and other nonessential travel can bounce back once the pandemic is over, said Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, during an interview this week. “I am hopeful, and I am optimistic,” added Hillman, who was virtually attending Rising Economy Week 2020, a Seattle forum on trade and border management, with her U.S. counterpart, Katherine Brucker, acting U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Hillman emphasized that pandemic restrictions on most nonessential border crossings had caused almost no reductions in trade between Washington and Canada.
Since March, cross-border cargo truck volume has fallen only 7.8% compared to the same period in 2019, and actual trade volumes have seen “virtually no decrease,” said Hillman, citing data from the Canada Border Services Agency.
“The [pandemic] measures that were put in place are performing the function that they were designed to perform, which is to continue to support the economy [and] continue to support people on both sides of the border, while minimizing the risk of transmission across the border,” said Hillman.
But other commerce hasn’t been so fortunate. Overall cross-border travel between British Columbia and Washington has fallen 90% compared to the same period in 2019, Hillman noted. That has led to major tourism losses on both sides of the border.
The Seattle area alone relies on Canada for around 70% of its foreign visitors, according to the trade group Visit Seattle. From January through August, the number of Canadian visitors to Seattle declined roughly 73% compared to the same period in 2019, according to Visit Seattle.
Hillman acknowledged that border restrictions, which are set jointly by U.S. and Canadian authorities, are unlikely to lift anytime soon. “It isn’t going to be [like] flicking a switch in any respect,” she said.
Though Hillman didn’t single out U.S. infection rates as a key driver for that timeline, she emphasized the data-driven nature of Canada’s current border policy, which is based on “the advice of our experts, and the science around transmission through traveling,” Hillman said. “What is happening with the virus on the ground, in the U.S. and Canada, informs the decisions that are made.”
Hillman also acknowledged the role that public attitudes will play in the tourism recovery after the pandemic. Both Canada and the U.S. need to recognize “that maybe there are certain — how can I say — hesitancies that might exist within our populations with respect to certain kinds of travel … because travel has been limited for quite a while now,” Hillman said. “I just think that we need to be conscious of all that.”
Hillman was quick to note that both the U.S. and Canadian governments were working closely on policies affecting border crossings and the pandemic. Joint efforts to minimize the travel restriction’s impacts on the massive supply chains that run between America and Canada were key in avoiding a major impact to trade.
Canada is Washington state’s second-largest export market, behind China, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. In 2019, the Evergreen State sent $8.5 billion in goods across the border.
Hillman said U.S. and Canadian officials and business groups are already developing strategies to restore cross-border business once nonessential travel is safe.
But she said none of those measures can start to be implemented until the U.S. and Canada can bring the pandemic to heel. “None of it is possible if we don’t get the virus under control,” Hillman said.
An earlier version of this article included inaccurate data from Visit Seattle about the role that Canadian visitors play in the Seattle cruise business.