- Luke Awtry
- Pamela Roberts at Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant
It's been a long time since Sue Blouin has counted on Canadian customers to stop by her farm and store in Enosburg Falls for baked goods and goat cheese. Pre-pandemic, Canadians made up 15 percent of the traffic at her place. But for the past two years, that dwindled to nearly nothing.
Although the Québec border is just 10 miles north of the Boston Post Dairy and its small store, the rigors of COVID-19 testing requirements for crossing all but choked off the flow of Canadian shoppers.
"They just didn't bother," Blouin said.
More than a million people passed into Vermont through the state's 15 Canadian border crossings in the federal fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2019; just 437,000 did in 2020, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In 2021, the number dropped to 82,000, the agency said.
But they've started coming back. On April 1, Canada dropped its testing rules for people entering or reentering the country. Since then, Blouin has seen a change. "There has definitely been a pickup," she said.
It's too soon to know whether visitor numbers will bounce back to pre-pandemic levels before the busy summer tourist season, but people who operate businesses in northern Vermont say the Canadians are trickling in.
"People who have summer homes on the lake who we haven't seen for two years are now starting to show up again at my store," said state Rep. Mike Marcotte (R-Coventry), the longtime owner of the Jimmy Kwik gas station and convenience store in Newport. Many Canadians own second homes in Vermont, including along Lake Memphremagog.
"And we're starting to see more Canadian plates," Marcotte added.
Kevin Mack, the director of operations at the Burke Mountain Resort, has noted a surge in Canadian hotel bookings through Tuango, a Canadian app similar to Groupon that offers its members deals on getaways and events.
"In the six days it's been available, we've sold dozens of packages to our guests in Québec," Mack said in late April.
Data from AirDNA, which tracks the short-term rental industry, show how steeply Canadian travel to Vermont dropped in March 2020. Canadian reviews of short-term lodgings in the Green Mountain State fell off by about 90 percent in June, July and August 2020 compared to those months in 2019. The pattern played out last summer, too. And in the first two months of this year, reviews were again down more than 80 percent compared to 2019.
Vermont has long had a close economic relationship with its neighbor to the north. The state shares its two largest bodies of water — Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog — with Canada. Vermont has a trade office in Montréal, and there are dozens of Canadian-owned businesses in the state, including two of Vermont's biggest maple companies, Highland Sugarworks and Sapjack. Canada is Vermont's largest foreign trade partner.
Canadian tourists usually make up about a third of the visitors at Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant, a resort in North Hero. Some of the guests who canceled their reservations for the summers of 2020 and 2021 are calling to say they're coming this summer, said Pamela Roberts, the resort's assistant general manager.
After the border testing requirement was dropped on April 1, "We got a flurry of calls: 'We're going to make it this year,'" Roberts said.
Many Vermonters have family members on both sides of the border, and in some northern communities, such as Derby Line — where the international border runs through the Haskell Free Library & Opera House — the towns were once practically merged. Over the decades, border residents have become accustomed to crossing back and forth through the small, rural U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations for groceries, work or family business. Canadians who lived near the border would often head south to buy gas, which was typically less expensive in the U.S.
When the border closed abruptly in March 2020, business and essential travel continued. But the family visits ended, and so did tourism. Jay Peak Resort, which used to draw 50 percent of its visitors from Canada, saw those customers disappear in 2020.
COVID-19 safety measures closed most of the resort's operations in the early weeks of the pandemic, and even as Jay Peak started to reopen that summer, business at the resort — which also has a water park and an 18-hole golf course — looked dire.
"Our Canadian business wasn't down; it was nonexistent," said JJ Toland, Jay Peak's director of communications.
Travel restrictions kept some out-of-staters away; many local customers were reluctant to venture out for safety reasons; and complex social-distancing rules for hotels, restaurants and stores limited how many people could stay or dine.
Guidelines for shopping, recreation and travel were even more confusing for Americans trying to get into Canada. And they're still confounding. Gillian Sewake, who runs the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, said she recently struggled to figure out the rules as she planned a family trip to Canada for this fall. Sewake, whose office is housed at the visitor center in St. Johnsbury, said locals occasionally come in seeking help with the Canadian app, ArriveCAN.
While the testing requirement is gone, anyone heading into Canada by road must still use the app to enter their proof of vaccination. Some who return to Canada are subject to random PCR tests.
There's no such requirement for those headed south into the U.S.
"There remains a good amount of confusion," Sewake said.
Even before the recent loosening of border testing requirements, things had begun to look up at some Vermont tourist attractions. The missing Canadians were replaced by U.S. travelers, who put off overseas vacations and instead drove to destinations such as Vermont. Many of the state's restaurants, stores and other attractions had very strong traffic during last fall's foliage season — much of it from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — and expect a busy summer.
Jay Peak took in its highest revenues ever in the fiscal year that ended in April, Toland said.
"We came in 32 percent better than we thought we were going to be," Toland said. "And it was 99.99 percent domestic. It more than made up for the loss of the Canadians."
Bookings for season passes and weekend stays are already up sharply at the golf course, where 70 percent of the visitors came from Canada pre-pandemic, Toland said.
"This year, we expect close to a full return to normalcy," Toland said. "We're seeing a lot more Canadian postcodes."
A similar phenomenon has played out on the shores of Lake Champlain. Jack Wallace, the co-owner of the Burlington Harbor Marina, relied on Canadians for about half of his business before 2020. They've largely stayed away for the past two years, but domestic boaters have filled the marina's 180 slips, drawn to an activity that trade groups say has grown more popular.
"So the U.S. customer has, fortunately for us, backfilled some of that demand that we have lost," Wallace said.
Wallace has rented almost all of his full-season slips for this summer. He also leaves open 40 slips for short-term bookings, and Canadian reservations for those stays are rising.
The recent uptick in travel is going both ways. In mid-April, Marcotte, the Jimmy Kwik gas station owner, visited his in-laws in Canada for the first time in two and a half years. The family lives about an hour and a half north of the border, in Valcourt, Québec. Before COVID-19, Marcotte and his wife used to visit at least monthly and would stop at a Québec grocery store for French cheeses, gravy and smoked meats.
Since their last visit, Marcotte's mother-in-law had moved to an assisted living home.
"It was good to have a meal with them and sit down and chitchat," Marcotte said.