New U.S. border rules will mean fewer short trips to Canada: analyst

Tough new U.S. rules governing identification required at the country's borders go into effect Monday, which one tourism analyst says will also significantly reduce same-day trips into Canada this year.

U.S. customs promises some flexibility for citizens returning home

U.S. Customs officer Nick Ligerakis hands back a Michigan driver's licence and information pamphlet outlining new identification requirements for people entering the country from Canada to a driver at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. ((Paul Sancya/Associated Press))
Tough new U.S. rules governing identification required at the country's borders go into effect Monday, which one tourism analyst says will also significantly reduce same-day trips into Canada this year.

On Monday, Canadian citizens and U.S. citizens returning home will require a passport or equivalent new identification to re-enter the United States.

"When we've done some of our previous work, we've found roughly 69 per cent of same-day travellers to Canada would wait until the last minute to get [appropriate documentation]," said Greg Hermus of the Canadian Tourism Research Institute, which is a sub-group of the Conference Board of Canada.

While U.S. citizens wait to secure new documentation, the delay will result "some fairly big year-over-year declines, especially on same-day auto travel," he said.

An estimated 20 per cent of Americans hold U.S. passports. Among Canadians, on the other hand, the number is believed to be just over 54 per cent.

People who make longer trips to Canada that require overnight stays are likely to travel by air, and most likely already have passports, Hermus told CBC News in an interview.

Hermus projects that same-day-travel into Canada will be down by 10 per cent by the end of the year compared with last year's numbers. He estimates that the new identification requirements alone could account for half of that decline.

The change is "another factor that will limit the potential revenues of the tourism industry," he said. "It will have probably a more significant impact for border communities."

The Western Hemispheres Travel Initiative, which legally mandates that Canadians over 16 are required to provide proof of citizenship when crossing the U.S. border by land or sea, took effect in January.

But the U.S. held off enforcing the rules until Monday, when a regular driver's licence and birth certificate will no longer be accepted at the border. Canadian citizens will have to present one of the following pieces of identification:

  • A passport.
  • A Nexus card.
  • A FAST (Free and Secure Trade) card.
  • An enhanced driver's licence or enhanced identification card (Only in B.C., Man., Ont. and Que.)

U.S. citizens going home must present either a passport card, an enhanced driver's licence or be enrolled in an automated border authorization system.

There are no changes to border identification rules when entering Canada. Travellers with a valid driver's licence and proof of citizenship can still enter Canada from the United States without a passport.

Relaxed enforcement at first

At least initially, however, U.S. customs officials would have a "flexible approach" as they monitor the border, said Joanne Ferreira of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency. People without appropriate documentation wouldn't be barred from entering, but may face delays as officials verify their citizenship, she told CBC News. She said the delays would be no different that delays that usually occur at border checkpoints.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest displays an enhanced driver's licence. ((Canadian Press))
She wouldn't say, however, when relaxed enforcement may be tightened, but said the agency is "cognizant" that the summer travel season has started.

"Right now we're not expecting any big concerns," she said, adding that over 80 per cent of U.S. and Canadian citizens crossing the border had the appropriate documentation under WHTI measures.

Hermus, however, believes there will be confusion over the rules initially, and that border communities such as Vancouver and the Ontario towns of Niagara Falls and Windsor will be significantly affected.

Around 56 per cent of visits to Windsor and 28 per cent of trips to Niagara are accounted for by same day auto trips from the U.S., he said. And of all visits to Vancouver, same day travel from U.S. accounts for 11 per cent.

Same-day travellers "don't leave behind as much spending, but still there are business that are counting on those revenues."

U.S. travel already down

U.S. travel to Canada has declined steadily in recent few months. According to figures released by Statistics Canada, U.S. travellers spent $1.8 billion in Canada between January and March, down seven per cent from the previous quarter to the lowest level since 1997.

Fewer Americans are travelling to Canada as the recession takes hold. U.S. travellers made 2.2. million same-day car trips to Canada, down 1.8 per cent compared to the previous quarter, and 4.3 per cent compared to the same time last year.

The funk will last through all of 2009, says Hermus, but same-day trips may edge up during 2010 as the economy improves and more people obtain the required identification.

"The longer term trend is Canada is losing its comparative advantage for same-day travel in particular from the U.S. into Canada," he said, adding same-day trips to Canada have fallen by two-thirds since 1998.

The Ambassador Bridge is shown in an aerial photograph looking from the Detroit side to the Windsor, Ont., around 56 per cent of trips to Windsor are estimated to be comprised of same-day car trips from the United States. ((Paul Sancya/Associated Press))
Canadian diplomats had lobbied hard against the new rules, fearing they would affect business and tourism revenues. Canada has argued — successfully — for a number of delays in its implementation. Legislators representing U.S. border states have also pushed for a delay.

A New York house representative, Louise Slaughter, said as recently as two months ago that she would push to get the measures delayed, predicting "pure chaos" would ensue if officials stuck to the June 1 implementation date.

'The chaos is a bit overblown'

Chris Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson institute, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank, who has spoken out in favour of the proposed changes, sees things differently. In an interview Thursday with The Canadian Press, he said, "The chaos is a bit overblown."

Sands, who has played down the effects of the changes on cross-border business, nevertheless foresees "a bit of a bumpy transition" in implementing the new changes. Like Hermus, he acknowledged that in U.S. border towns like Detroit and Buffalo, "you'll see a bigger effect."

Still, the new requirement, which has some "practical value," was inevitable, he said.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was started by the Bush administration in 2005 and sought to enhance border security. Mexico, Caribbean countries, Bermuda and Canada are all affected by the legislation.

With files from The Canadian Press