U.S. tourists’ visits to Canada hit 36-year low


The summer tourism season has arrived in Old Montreal, but the tourists have not.

The streets, restaurants, and boutiques of this picturesque 18th-century neighborhood in the heart of Quebec’s major city are usually crowded with Americans on holiday. But this year, they’re eerily quiet, and area businesspeople say this could be the worst year yet for an industry that’s taken a beating since 2001.

“Each year there’s been a challenge: We had 9/11 and the SARS outbreak, the exchange rate, and high gas prices,” says Gisele Beauvais Olivier as she arranges ceramics in her boutique on Rue St Paul. “Americans are very good customers who appreciate handicrafts, but they are not here as usual.”

It’s a situation being played out across Canada, including the western provinces. In March, the last month for which official statistics have been released, visits by Americans fell to their lowest level since record keeping began 36 years ago. Data released June 28 showed foreign tourist spending in the first quarter fell to the lowest level since 1999, and that the number of U.S. visitors has fallen by nearly a third since 2003.

“Canada’s tourism sector is on the brink of crisis,” says Randy Williams, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada in Ottawa. “We’ve been facing a lot of external challenges, and each time one gets dealt with, another one comes along.”

Williams’s organization describes a “perfect storm of adverse conditions” in a country where nearly 90 percent of the tourist trade is American: sky-high gasoline prices, confusion about new US customs and passport requirements, border crossing delays, and the U.S. dollar’s 30 percent fall against its Canadian counterpart over the past two years. The U.S. and Canadian dollars now are about equal in value.

Among the hardest-hit are communities and businesses that rely on short-term, drive-in tourists. In March, Americans made only 730,000 same-day car trips, down 2.5 percent from February and 68.3 percent from 2001.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario has also seen its U.S. clientele wither, with ticket orders off by 10 to 12 percent compared with 2007. “Until this year, we’ve been somewhat protected from the downturn. But now we’ve seen the most significant drop,” says the theater company’s media manager, Ann Swerdfager. “There’s the weak dollar, high gas prices, and a lot of confusion about what kind of documents are required to get back into the U.S.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection now requires US citizens to have a passport to re-enter the U.S. by air. For land and sea travel, U.S. citizens who don’t have a passport must have proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate) and government-issued photo ID. (Get details at www.cbp.gov/) This year is the quietest in recent memory on Montreal’s Old Port waterfront, according to Sarah Cuillerier of Amphi-Bus Tours, as she tends the company’s open-air kiosk. “Usually we’d be seeing lots more people in the port by this time of the year, but now it’s really, really quiet,” she says. “We still see the same number of Europeans, but far less Americans.”

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada is urging federal authorities in both countries to reduce border delays through enhanced staffing and other investments. “If we want to meet our tourism potential, we have to be sure we’re efficiently transferring people through the border,” says Williams, who also notes that since 9/11, Canada has lost ground to Britain and Spain, both of which have been targets of terrorist attacks.