Banff residents worry U.S. tourists visiting town thanks to so-called 'Alaska loophole'

While non-essential travel between Canada and the United States is presently closed, some Banff residents say they've seen Texas, California and even New York licence plates in town recently.

Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential travel to help stop spread of COVID-19

A photo of a tree-lined paved street
The majority of restaurants and businesses have reopened in the town of Banff, Alta., but some are reporting tourists arriving from south of the border. (Helen Pike/CBC)

While non-essential travel between Canada and the United States is prohibited, some Banff residents say they've seen Texas, Washington and even New York licence plates in town recently.

Nina Stewart said some of her friends who work in the restaurant industry have recently served tourists — and she even spotted some southern visitors herself.

"Downtown just the other day, two days ago, I saw four people get out of a car, out of a Texas vehicle," she said. "They were laughing and joking about how easy it was to get into Banff."

It's being called the "Alaska loophole" by some locals, referring to a rule observed by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Under current rules, Americans may come through Canada to get home to Alaska, but they must travel along a direct path. When they need to stop, they must maintain distance away from the public as much as possible.

"Upon arrival at the port of entry, a traveller seeking to transit through Canada to Alaska will be required to substantiate their purpose for going to Alaska," said Judith Gadbois St-Cyr, a spokesperson with the CBSA, in an email to CBC News.

"Only in circumstances where the traveller is considered to be transiting through to Alaska for a non-discretionary purpose will they be admitted to Canada.

"Should an officer have any doubts with regards to the traveller's intended purpose, the traveller will be required to prove/substantiate their purpose of travel."

U.S.- Canada border restrictions loosened, allowing some families to reunite

4 years ago
Duration 3:23
Canada is now allowing some family members separated by temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions to cross the border from the U.S.

Under the rules as stated, travellers should avoid hotels and only pick up food via drive-thrus. Masks should be worn at rest stops when taking bathroom breaks.

St-Cyr noted that there are legitimate reasons for the presence of a U.S. resident or a U.S.-plated vehicle in Canada.

Calgary resident Tim Jones is staying in Canmore with his family. He said he has seen plates from Pennsylvania and Washington recently.

"It's hard to know their story. Perhaps they got stuck here or chose to wait things out in our country," he said in an email.

The majority of restaurants and businesses have reopened in the town of Banff. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Complaint from local restaurant

But some worry that these Americans passing through may neglect to self-isolate for 14 days while stopping in the community.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Michael Buxton-Carr said he received a complaint from a local restaurant asking how to deal with those who might flout the rules.

"It was more a request for information how to handle a similar incident. The complaint did not provide information with travellers' names or vehicles associated or hotels, so we were unable to follow up on it," Buxton-Carr said.

It's unclear to RCMP whether the reports represent a trend or a few isolated events.

Buxton-Carr says if residents or those working in Banff should come across U.S. vacationers, they should contact RCMP and Alberta Health Services. 

"We want our reopening to be safe for residents and visitors. We want to do it right, we want to do it once," he said.

Asked about the reports on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the country's reciprocal arrangement with U.S. officials was working "really well overall."

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Friday that it was necessary that essential travel continue between the U.S. and Canada border amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"I would just like to emphasize to all Canadians, to all Americans, that these restrictions are there for a reason. They are there to keep us all safe," Freeland said. "Please do not come to Canada unless you are coming for an essential reason, and I would like to thank our border guards for doing a really, really good job.

"It's really hard, I have been really positively impressed by the extent to which our border guards have successfully managed to restrict the non-essential travel and keep the essential travel going."

The Canada-U.S. border is closed to all non-essential traffic until at least June 21, but sources told CBC News earlier this week that the two countries are holding talks about extending those restrictions. 

With files from Helen Pike