Why Canadians talk about boycotting the U.S. but are actually travelling there more

After Donald Trump won the presidential election, there was plenty of chatter among Canadians about avoiding travel to the United States on principle. But as one pollster says, there's often a big gap between intentions and actions.

'That's how long my boycott lasted — until I had a place to stay in Palm Springs,' one woman says

Cars from Canada line up to cross into the U.S. in Blaine, Wash. The number of Canadian travellers heading south has been been on the rise, figures show. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Adam May is heading to Seattle — but he's a bit conflicted about it.

He's thought about boycotting the United States. He disagrees strongly with the actions of President Donald Trump. Yet, like a growing number of Canadians, he's still making a trip down south.

"It's maybe a bit embarrassing to say, but you have these thoughts and bluster and then you think, well, I could go on this trip, and I guess that wins out," he says.

The Calgary resident had booked his vacation last fall with a group of friends who plan to watch the Toronto Blue Jays take on the Seattle Mariners this week. But he had second thoughts after details came to light of the Trump administration's move to separate children from their parents on the U.S.-Mexico border.

He looked into cancelling the trip, but found out it was too late to get a refund. And he had already booked the vacation time. So, he's crossing the border with mixed feelings. And he's far from alone. 

Whether it's over the child-separation policy, or the travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries, or the tariffs recently slapped on Canadian products, there's been plenty of chatter among Canadians about boycotting the United States, on principle.

Turns out that's often easier said than done.

The tale of the travel data

Despite all the boycott talk, the number of Canadians returning from overnight trips in the U.S. has actually grown by six per cent, on a seasonally adjusted basis, since Trump's inauguration.

Western Canadians, in particular, are flocking across the border in larger and larger numbers, with double-digit increases recorded in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan over that same time.

Here's the national data, at a glance, over the past 10 years on record.

The numbers are gathered by the Canada Border Services Agency and compiled by Statistics Canada, which adjusts the data for seasonality to make for better month-to-month comparisons.

Roland VanMeurs says the border-crossing data is right in line with what he's observed as a manager with AMA Travel in St. Albert, Alta.

"We're definitely seeing an increase of travel to the United States," he says.

VanMeurs points to factors like the improving economy, the increased availability of flights to some popular U.S. destinations and the relative strength of the Canadian dollar compared to a couple of years ago.

The loonie has averaged around 77 cents US during Trump's presidency, which is stronger than it has been in the recent past.

"A lot of it really depends on what people are used to paying in exchange rates," VanMeurs says.

The dollar sank below 69 cents US back in January 2016, and travel to the U.S. also bottomed out around the same time. Both have edged upward since, a trend that spans both the end of the Obama presidency and the beginning of Trump's.

So, the data suggests Canadians' travel decisions are guided more by prices than by politics. But what about those who are motivated by political concerns?

Some are having second thoughts about boycotts.

Who does a boycott actually hurt?

Cody Stuart and his friends have talked it over and they've decided to go ahead with a planned trip to Hawaii in December.

They all have misgivings, the Calgary resident says, for a variety of reasons that relate to the Trump administration's policies. But they're still taking the trip.

"I guess, if I was to justify it, Hawaii has been one of the most anti-Trump states ... and they rely on tourism so much that, if all the anti-Trump people — which I am certainly one of — stopped going there, that would kill their economy," he says.

U.S. President Donald Trump's policies, including a ban on travellers from several Muslim majority countries, have generated controversy both home and abroad. This protest in Seattle in 2017 was just one of many since Trump was elected. (David Ryde/Reuters)

"So you're kind of hurting the people who are against him the most."

May sees his trip to Seattle in a similar way, saying he tries to separate "the people that you're going to be interacting with there from the current administration."

Others, however, are drawing a line in the sand.

Tariffs the last straw?

A Calgary woman we're calling Sandra, because she fears using her real name will hurt business ties with her American clients, doesn't mince words when talking about why she's now avoiding non-essential travel to the United States.

"I'm angry," she says.

"The relationship between the two countries has always been positive and it's always been mutually beneficial and now, pardon my French here, but it's a bit of a clusterf—k."

She and her husband run a business that has involved frequent travel to the United States but now they're trying to minimize it wherever possible, by attending conferences and holding meetings online instead of in person.

As for personal travel, they're avoiding it.

The tariffs Sandra is so angry about were announced in late May and the latest travel data from Statistics Canada is current only to April, so it remains to be seen whether they'll have any impact on cross-border traffic.

If the upward trend in U.S. travel does continue, though, Janet Brown wouldn't be surprised.

Intention vs. action

The Calgary-based pollster, who runs Janet Brown Opinion Research, has seen it time and time again: What people say they're going to do doesn't always correspond to what they end up actually doing.

"There is a big difference between intentions and actions," she says.

It's not a criticism, Brown says. It's just a part of human nature — and she's not immune.

"I was one of those people saying 'I'm not going to the States' and then one of the ladies in my book club said, 'Why don't we have book club at my place in Palm Springs?' And I'm like, 'OK.' So that's how long my boycott lasted — until I had a place to stay in Palm Springs."

A woman with blonde hair and glasses is smiling in front of a TV set, which shows a map of Calgary.
Janet Brown, a pollster based in Calgary, says it's easier to take a stand than follow through. (CBC)

The issue, she says, is that people tend to assert their intentions in an "everything else being equal" scenario. So, if everything else were truly equal, she believes more people would indeed choose to travel to Europe rather the U.S.

But, when you compare costs and a trip to California is cheaper than a trip to Bordeaux, the assertion is no longer valid. The same goes when your cousin is getting married in Colorado, or your favourite team is playing in Boston, or any number of other, real-life scenarios that are likely to impact your travel decisions more than a theoretical assertion you made months ago.

"I wouldn't want to come out with the position of beating people up and saying people are not genuine when they make these sorts of proclamations," Brown says.

"But I think it's just easier to make a proclamation than it is to follow through."


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist / Senior Reporter

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.