US Rep. Brian Higgins believes the time has come to lift cross-border restrictions to help ease travel between the US and Canada in hopes of bolstering the region’s tourism economy in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Following a meeting on Wednesday in Niagara Falls with tourism leaders from Niagara and Erie counties, the Democrat from Buffalo said he’d also like the US government to take another look at travel restrictions imposed following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
As hoteliers, restaurant owners and other tourism businesses continue to strive to get back to pre-pandemic sales numbers, Higgins said the best thing governments on both sides of the border can do is promote “ease of travel” wherever possible. He stressed that the region’s tourism economy, which one travel group said had a $ 2.9 billion impact while supporting more than 22,000 jobs in 2019, can no longer afford to be patient.
“The fact of the matter is we need these restrictions lifted and we need them lifted now,” Higgins said.
Higgins recently wrote a letter to Chris Magnus, commissioner of US Border Protection, encouraging his agency to address what he described as a “significant backlog” for new applications to trusted travelers programs like NEXUS that allow expedited crossings for pre-screened travelers between Canada and the US
Higgins noted that there is currently a nine-month wait for new applicants trying to schedule screening opportunities at the Niagara Falls enrollment center, which reopened after prolonged COVID-related closure in April.
“In order to revive our local economies to their pre-pandemic levels we must remove the barriers to travel and return to northern border management that encourages the convenient and efficient flow of people between both countries,” Higgins said.
While Higgins acknowledged that COVID-19 remains a public health concern and Americans and Canadians are right to continue to be vigilant where tamping down spread, he said the effectiveness of vaccines and the diminishment of the severeness of newer virus strains has allowed people in all walks of life to resume activities they enjoyed before the pandemic.
Those activities should include leisure travel, Higgins argued.
“We are stronger as a region when that access is eased,” he said.
In late June, the Canadian government announced that it will extend existing border restrictions through Sept. 30. Those restrictions include vaccination requirements and the submission of health information and travel by both Americans and Canadians within 72 hours of their arrival or return to Canada.
The Canadian government requires such information to be submitted through an app called “ArriveCAN,” which Higgins said serves as a deterrent to cross-border travel for Canadians and Americans alike. When asked what should be done with the system, Higgins said simply: “Get it out of the way.”
“This poses a major problem for people that otherwise would make a day trip,” he said.
Before answering questions from reporters, Higgins met inside the Aquarium of Niagara with representatives from the local tourism industry, including John Percy, president and CEO of Destination Niagara USA, Niagara County’s lead tourism agency, and his counterpart in Erie County, Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. The roundtable discussion also included representatives from the aquarium, Old Fort Niagara, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Museum, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and several other businesses and organizations.
One of them, the US Travel Association, provided research that showed travel-related spending dropped by 54% and tourism industry jobs declined by 35 percent from pre-pandemic numbers in 2019 to the first few months of the pandemic in March 2020.
The gradual reopening of the border, amid continued restrictions, has improved the situation, according to the travel association which found spending by domestic and international travelers increased by 109% in Niagara County and more than 76% in Erie County since 2021.
Still, Erik Hanson, vice president of government relations for the US Travel Association, said more effort is needed on a variety of fronts to restore the nation’s travel industry to its pre-pandemic form.
Hanson said the business travel sector was particularly hard hit by COVID-19 and his association does not anticipate a return to pre-pandemic numbers until at least 2024.
The pandemic severely curtailed international travel as well.
Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, noted that the fort received a total of 209,000 visitors in 2019 before the pandemic set in, with roughly 120,000 of those coming from countries abroad.
“That’s a huge number,” he said.
Percy noted that international travelers, on average, spend roughly two and a half times more than domestic travelers, underscoring the importance of allowing people to travel with ease between countries like Canada and the US
Travel industry leaders told Higgins they are also facing a problem that has been common among many employers post-COVID and that’s a lack of workers who are willing to accept jobs at the pay hotels, restaurants and other travel-related businesses can afford to offer.
He encouraged Higgins to advocate for changes at the congressional level that would help streamline the interview and application process for visas that allow people from other countries to visit and work in the United States.
Kaler said the owners of hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses now find themselves in a highly competitive jobs market and anything that can be done to increase the pool of candidates would be welcome.
“We are in the service industry and you can’t do that virtually,” he said.