VANCOUVER, B.C. — The Canadian border is open, but the streets of Vancouver aren’t exactly teeming with U.S. tourists — yet. Canadians in the hospitality and tourism industry are hoping against hope they’ll be here soon.
“We haven’t seen any U.S. cash so far,” said David Rohrer, owner of two coffee shops in Vancouver: Bean Around the World in the Gastown neighborhood and At the Totem Poles in Stanley Park, a popular tourist destination. “But they’re gonna come.”
Canada opened its southern border to fully vaccinated Americans at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, but the bright, clean tennis shoes and baseball caps — which some Canadians say announce the arrival of American tourists — are still seldom seen in the usual hot spots.
Canadian tourists, on the other hand, are abundant. One recent afternoon at Stanley Park’s famous totem poles, just outside Rohrer’s shop, visitors spoke a variety of languages, including French and Arabic — but no American-accented English.
“I came here for the seafood, for some sun and for the mountains,” said Lena Nguyen, visiting for a few days from Toronto. “I’ve run into several friends while I’ve been here — and nobody told each other we’d be in town. Flights inside Canada are cheap, so I guess we all just came!”
Law enforcement officials on both sides of the U.S./Canada border say wait times to cross between the two countries have been minimal in Washington state — and the Aug. 9 border opening hasn’t prompted a stampede at Vancouver International Airport, either.
On Aug. 8, the airport logged 1,958 passengers arriving from the U.S. On Aug. 9, that number bumped up to 2,172, then fell on Aug. 10 to 1,400.
But more are expected. “If current trends continue, come September we’re estimating 15,000 passengers from the U.S. each week,” said Vancouver International Airport spokesperson Danielle Palfrey. To put those numbers in perspective, she explained, the airport saw 5,300 U.S. passengers per week this time last year — in the thick of the pandemic — but in 2019, received 123,000 U.S. visitors each week.
In the first few days after the border opened, Palfrey said, it took international passengers an estimated 60-90 minutes to clear airport customs and immigration checkpoints. (All visitors from the U.S. must show proof of full vaccination, as well as a negative coronavirus test taken within the past 72 hours. Some visitors are also randomly chosen for an additional coronavirus test upon arrival in Canada.)
“The first wave of American visitors are, I think, visiting family and friends,” said Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “It’s more familial and social connections as opposed to the economic ones, like: ‘Ooh, look, Stanley Park!’”
Susan Kindle, for example, is a retired nurse from the Washington, D.C., area who took a connecting Air Canada flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Vancouver on Tuesday so she could visit family in Alberta and Ontario. “As soon as they announced they were opening up the border, I made a reservation,” she said.
Despite the rise of coronavirus variants like delta and lambda, Kindle said she wasn’t too concerned about traveling: “I’m a nurse, I observe protocols, I know how to take care of myself and others.”
Julie Leary, a retired educator on the same Air Canada flight (final destination: family reunion in Quebec) was a little worried. “I was feeling great until delta started spiking,” she said. “I’m vaccinated, I’ve been tested twice in the past two days, but my mother is older. I’m a little afraid I’ll give it to her. I kind of wish they’d test me when I get there, just for peace of mind.”
Meanwhile, cafe owner Rohrer — and the rest of the Vancouver hospitality industry — is eagerly awaiting the return of U.S. tourism, a significant driver of the local economy. A 2019 study by the government of British Columbia found that tourism was the province’s third-largest industry in 2017, just after real estate and construction.
According to Destination Vancouver, the pandemic lockdowns cost the metropolitan area $9.8 billion in visitor spending, $2.6 billion in taxes to local government and 72,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
Hotel bookings in Vancouver have increased since the border reopening announcement, said Destination Vancouver spokesperson Sabrina Tey, with hotel occupancy rates around 65%, compared to 89% during late summer of 2019, before the pandemic.
Canadian tourists are good for the local economy, Tey explained, but the further people travel to get to Vancouver, the bigger their economic impact. “Travelers from the U.S. spend twice as much as domestic travelers,” she said, “and other international travelers three times as much.”
How do Canadians not embedded in the tourism industry feel about the return of travelers from the U.S., where the vaccination rate is notably lower? (According to the most recent data from national health services, 68.2% of Canadians age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, compared to 58.9% of Americans in the same age bracket.)
Reports are mixed. “I wouldn’t say I’m apprehensive, exactly,” said Nguyen, the visitor from Toronto. “But so far, I’ve been more comfortable traveling inside Canada: I take care of myself, keep my distance from strangers — and I trust Canadians.”