U.S. Representative Brian Higgins says now is the time to lift cross-border restrictions to help ease travel between the U.S. and Canada in hopes of bolstering the region’s tourism economy in the wake of COVID-19 .
Following a Wednesday meeting in Niagara Falls with tourism leaders from Niagara and Erie counties, the Buffalo Democrat said he would also like the US government to reconsider travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
As hoteliers, restaurateurs and other tourism businesses continue to strive to return to pre-pandemic sales figures, Higgins said the best thing governments on both sides of the border can do is promote “ease of travel” wherever possible. He pointed out that the region’s tourism economy, which a travel group says impacted $2.9 billion while supporting more than 22,000 jobs in 2019, can no longer afford to be patient.
“The point is, we need these restrictions lifted and we need them lifted now,” Higgins said.
Higgins recently wrote a letter to Chris Magnus, U.S. Border Protection Commissioner, encouraging his agency to address what he described as a “significant backlog” for new applications for trusted traveler programs like NEXUS. which allow expedited crossings for pre-selected travelers between Canada and the United States
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 an extended COVID-related closure in April.
“In order to revive our local economies to pre-pandemic levels, we must remove barriers to travel and return to northern border management that encourages the convenient and efficient movement of people between the two countries,” said Higgins. .
While Higgins acknowledged that COVID-19 remains a public health concern and that Americans and Canadians are right to continue to be vigilant where the slump spreads, he said vaccine effectiveness and diminishing the severity of the new viral strains have empowered people from all walks of life. of life to resume the activities they practiced before the pandemic.
Those activities should include leisure travel, Higgins explained.
“We are stronger as a region when this access is facilitated,” he said.
At the end of June, the Canadian government announced that it would extend existing border restrictions until September 30. These restrictions include vaccination requirements and the submission of health and travel information for Americans and Canadians within 72 hours of arriving in or returning to Canada.
The Canadian government requires that this information be submitted through an app called “ArriveCAN,” which Higgins says has a chilling effect on cross-border travel for Canadians and Americans. When asked what to do with the system, Higgins simply replied, “Eliminate it.”
“This poses a major problem for people who would otherwise go on a day trip,” he said.
Before taking questions from reporters, Higgins met inside the Aquarium of Niagara with representatives of the local tourism industry, including John Percy, President and CEO of Destination Niagara USA, the leading tourism agency of Niagara County, and his Erie County counterpart, Patrick Kaler, chair. and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. The roundtable 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, the US Travel Association, provided research that showed travel spending fell 54% and jobs in the tourism industry fell 35% between the figures. before the pandemic in 2019 and the first 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 that 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 efforts were needed on various fronts to restore the country’s travel industry to its pre-pandemic shape.
Hanson said the business travel sector has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 and his association does not expect a return to pre-pandemic numbers until at least 2024.
The pandemic has also drastically reduced international travel.
Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, noted that the fort received a total of 209,000 visitors in 2019 before the pandemic took hold, including about 120,000 from foreign countries.
“It’s a huge number,” he said.
Percy noted that international travelers, on average, spend about two and a half times more than domestic travelers, stressing the importance of allowing people to travel easily between countries like Canada and the United States.
Travel industry leaders told Higgins they also face a problem that has been common with many employers post-COVID and that is a lack of workers who are willing to take jobs in hotels, restaurants and other travel-related businesses can afford to offer.
He encouraged Higgins to advocate for congressional changes that would help streamline the interview and visa application process for people from other countries to visit and work in the United States.
Kaler said owners of hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses now find themselves in a highly competitive job market and anything that can be done to increase the pool of applicants would be welcome.
“We’re in the service industry and you can’t do it virtually,” he said.