More than 18,000 people have tried to visit, shop, sightsee in Canada despite border closure

Despite strict travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, more than 18,000 foreign nationals — most of them American citizens — have been turned back at the border after trying to enter Canada to shop, sightsee or visit people.

Border officers deny entry to U.S. citizens and others whose travel is deemed non-essential

The Peace Arch Canada/U.S. border crossing in Surrey, B.C. on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Despite strict travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, more than 18,000 foreign nationals — most of them American citizens — have been turned back at the border after trying to enter Canada to shop, sightsee or visit people.

That pattern prompted the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to remind people about the ban on non-essential travel before the Labour Day weekend — traditionally a busy time for cross-border visits.

According to statistics from the CBSA, 18,431 people were denied entry to Canada between March 22 and Sept. 2 because their trips were deemed "discretionary."

Of those, 16,070 were U.S citizens and 2,361 were citizens of other countries arriving from the U.S.

Another 448 travellers arriving in Canada by air directly from other foreign countries were refused entry.

The Canada-U.S. border is to remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Sept. 21, under the terms of an agreement between the two countries.

"With these travel restrictions still currently in place, any travellers attempting to enter Canada for discretionary reasons such as sightseeing or shopping will not be permitted to enter Canada," said CBSA spokesperson Mark Stuart.

Travellers also are not allowed to enter Canada to check on cottages or seasonal homes, to hike, boat, fish or hunt, to visit friends or to attend parties or other celebrations, he said.

There are some exemptions to the border ban in place for spouses and some workers and students, but all those permitted to enter Canada are required to self-isolate for 14 days and follow other provincial and territorial public health guidelines.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said that despite strong messaging from the Canadian government officials about the border closure, "quite a lot of people are still trying to come in."

'Surprising' figures

"They think that they're allowed to come and visit friends and family and it doesn't work," he said. "It's not the time. They have to stay in their country."

While he said the number of people still attempting to enter Canada is "surprising," Fortin added it must be viewed within the context of the size of the border — the longest international crossing in the world.

The closure to non-essential travel, which has been in place since March 21, has driven a sharp decline in traffic between the two countries. The border remains open for trade and transportation services.

"We remain extremely busy at the border with commercial goods. There's medication coming to Canada, there's food coming to Canada," Fortin said. "The officers remain vigilant in applying the regulations they are asked to."

The prolonged border closure is taking a heavy toll on Canada's travel and tourism sector.

Charlotte Bell, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said that U.S. residents were taking more than 14 million trips to Canada each year on average before the pandemic hit. Tourist attractions, tour operators, conference centres and others relying on the massive U.S. market have seen revenues decline or dry up entirely due to the travel ban.

"We were the hardest hit and the first hit. It's going to have a huge impact on our ability to restart as long as the borders remain closed," she said.

Tourism sector calls for support

Bell said the industry needs government supports to give it the liquidity it needs to survive the crisis and eventually bounce back.

"This is a resilient industry and when things start to open up more, I think you will find that we will be there and ready to welcome travellers, whether it's domestic or international, and I think there's a great deal of optimism when that day comes," she said.

Tess Messmer, spokesperson for Destination Canada, said COVID-19 has caused the loss of up to 450,000 jobs and up to $62 billion in revenue in the tourism sector.

The Crown corporation says it is working to build domestic travel demand for the fall, winter and beyond. Money that normally would be used for international marketing is being redirected to support provincial, territorial and local marketing efforts.

"By focusing on the domestic campaign now, it allows us to start building confidence at home first, and eventually [in] international markets," Messmer said in an email.

"When the time is right – guided by health regulations, research, and other factors – Destination Canada will gradually evolve to international marketing programs." 

Statistics from the U.S. that can be compared directly to the CBSA's numbers are not available, but figures provided to CBC by U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that 6,878 people attempting to enter the United States were deemed inadmissible at northern border land ports of entry between March and July.

Those people could have been declared inadmissible to the U.S. for any one of 60 reasons listed under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Of those deemed inadmissible, 2,479 were Canadians and the other 4,399 were citizens of other countries.

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