B.C. cross-border shoppers slow to return to Washington state businesses

Click to play video: 'Cross-border shopping down from B.C. to Washington'
Cross-border shopping down from B.C. to Washington
WATCH: While the removal of COVID-19 restrictions led to an immediate boost in cross-border travel, it hasn't been what many U.S. border town businesses say they were hoping for. Janet Brown has more on the factors behind that. – Jun 12, 2023

COVID-19 restrictions at the U.S. border are a thing of the past, but businesses in Washington state say the hoped-for rebound in Canadian shoppers has been slow to materialize.

“It’s bit slower than we would have hoped, but I don’t think that was unexpected,” Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce told Global News.

Occhiogrosso said it appears British Columbians habits have changed, and it may take some time for them to rediscover their old patterns of when it comes to shopping and travel.

Click to play video: 'Busy first week for NEXUS enrolment centres'
Busy first week for NEXUS enrolment centres

Those patterns, however, are critically important to some businesses in border-proximate communities like Bellingham, who Occhiogrosso said can rely on for as much as half of their customers at times.

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“It can be, depending on the weekend and depending on the store, somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent,” he said.

And their absence has been noticed, according to David Prince, assistant property manager at Bellis Fair Mall.

Pre-pandemic, tour buses catering to cross-border shoppers used to be lined up on the weekend, but have now virtually disappeared.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed a high of 3.9 million entries to the United States at the Blaine border crossing in 2019.

That number was virtually slashed in half in 2022, down to 2.06 million, despite the easing of pandemic border restrictions. For the first quarter of 2023, officials recorded 622,000 crossings — on track to surpass last year, but not by much.

Click to play video: 'Thinner crowds cross-border shopping this Black Friday'
Thinner crowds cross-border shopping this Black Friday

The U.S. removed its COVID vaccine requirement for entry last month.

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Laurie Trautman, director of the border policy research institute at Western Washington University, said July and August are traditionally the busiest travel times in the region, will say much about the state of the cross-border economy.

“For a while they (crossings) were hovering at around 60 per cent of pre-pandemic volumes, but the preliminary volume from the month of June so far shows us at closer to 75 per cent of what we would typically see at this time of year,” she said.

“I think to a certain extent people’s travel patterns and shopping habits changed over the two plus years they weren’t able to just move freely back and forth down to Washington … they may have reoriented their vacation, their travel, their family visits enough to the point where we won’t see a return to those numbers.”

Both Trautman and Occhiogrosso expressed hope that the resumption of the NEXUS program will drive more Canadians south.

The popular trusted traveller program that allows expedited crossings at the borders has been mired in pandemic-related backlogs, exacerbated by the closure of most enrolment centres on the Canadian side of the border.

“Getting that backlog processed for the nexus pass, whether its new applications or renewals, will have a significant impact on the increase of the people coming south,” Occhiogrosso said.

— with files from Global’s Janet Brown and the Canadian Press


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