There are signs all over town: “Welcome Back Friends!”
Canadian flags also hang on poles greeting visitors as they arrive. In the New York state village of Ellicottville, a three-hour drive southeast of Toronto, the reopening of the U.S. border to Canadians this week is a very big deal.
“It’s the most exciting day we’ve had in a long time,” said Brian McFadden, executive director of the Ellicottville Chamber of Commerce.
“These Canadians who come down here are our friends, we really did miss that.”
McFadden also happens to be Canadian. He moved to the village permanently in 1998 after “getting lost in a snowstorm” almost 20 years earlier, building a home and later marrying a woman he met locally.
For almost 20 months, Canadian visitors haven’t been allowed to make the routine drive across nearby border bridges at Buffalo, Niagara Falls, or Lewiston, N.Y., because of pandemic restrictions that blocked the border.
Under normal circumstances, hundreds of Canadian travellers would cross each week with their sights set on Ellicottville, especially in ski season, but also for mountain biking, golfing and social events in other months.
“We definitely missed our Canadians and they missed us,” said Jane Eshbaugh, director of marketing for Holiday Valley Resort, the main local destination for skiers. The resort also has a golf course.
“Normally, our Canadian visitors make up to 25 per cent of visitors for the year, and, last year, we virtually had zero,” she said in an interview with Global News.
Canadians are so coveted, the resort accepts Canadian dollars at par for lift tickets for one week each January.
Many Canadians own homes or lease condominium units in the village. Some spend virtually every winter weekend or longer stretches at a time. But the restrictions kept most away over the last year and a half.
Eshbaugh points out that Canadians missed an excellent ski season in 2020-2021 because weather was consistently cool and snow conditions were considered excellent.
In October, Holiday Valley was ranked the number two ski resort in eastern North America by SKI Magazine readers. Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont came first.
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Downtown businesses — almost all locally-owned because of requirements that make it difficult for chains to operate in the village — value Canadian travellers, too.
“We missed the families and the customers, people we’ve grown up with here,” said Laura Solly, owner of Daff Dry Goods, a clothing retailer with a western theme.
Solly says seeing familiar Canadians in her store and on the street will be welcomed.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of celebrating,” Solly told Global News.
But even though Canadians were legally prevented from crossing the border in the manner to which they and the village were accustomed for decades, the local economy didn’t suffer a loss. The opposite is true.
“A lot of people came to rent condos and work from home from here,” McFadden said, pointing out that New York state residents, as well as Pennsylvania and Ohio visitors, filled the economic void.
“We’ve had record sales,” he said, explaining that in the absence of Canadians, other travellers experienced the community for the first time.
“We made people aware we were following the (COVID-19) rules. If you were coming here, you were following them, and all of a sudden people started coming here and spending time here. We had all these new folks, we’ve been pleasantly surprised since the summer of 2020,” McFadden said.
But the Canadian contingent, which missed out on the village’s 200th birthday last year, will soon start returning to reclaim their seats on chairlifts and bar stools.
The only remaining problem: while the U.S. border has finally reopened to travellers at land crossings, Canadians must still obtain a negative COVID-19 PCR test before they’re allowed back home.
The requirement, not expected of Canadians going into the United States, is considered by some business operators and many travellers to be a cumbersome and expensive deterrent.
“We’re not going to get the day-trippers because you can’t get the results the same day,” McFadden said, expressing disappointment.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said Friday that the test requirements are under review.
“We are looking at that quite carefully,” Tam said.
“I do think all this needs to be re-examined, as we are doing with all of the border measures moving ahead,” she added.
In a move to attract Canadians right now, the village has just announced a program that will allow anyone to get free PCR tests at Holimont, the private ski club also located in Ellicottville. By charter, 50 per cent of the club’s members are Canadian.
That means someone can ski for the weekend anywhere in the community and get tested without searching for a health-care provider or pulling out their wallet to pay up.
“It’s free every Thursday, Friday and Saturday … it’s for everybody who comes to Ellicottville,” said McFadden.
With less than a month to the first ski day at Holiday Valley, the border reopening comes at an opportune time.
McFadden says it will be easy to pick out those who are coming from the other side of the border.
“We know by their accents,” he chuckles.