Business & Economy

Extended border closure could be an economic ‘killer,’ tourism leaders say

Canada U.S.
A Canadian flag flies next to an American flag outside the Bridges Resort in Warren. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

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Lisamarie Charlesworth worries about the quiet enveloping St. Albans.

This time of year, the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce manager would normally see more outdoor activity than she does now. 

But she said traffic has receded with the closure of the U.S.-Canada border, about 15 miles north of the city. With the shutdown’s extension to late June, she and other regional tourism leaders believe the impact on Vermont’s economy could be massive amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The longer that border remains closed, and the longer we need to socially distance for a time, the more economically devastating this pandemic is going to be,” said Tom Torti, CEO and outgoing president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce

“Frankly,” he said, “it’s a killer.”

Canadian officials began tightening border policies March 16, prohibiting travel to the country for non-Canadian citizens or permanent residents, though left an exception for U.S. citizens. 

Two days later, leaders on both sides of the border agreed to bar all nonessential travel — allowing only food, medicine and fuel supply chains, trucking, and traveling essential workers to continue.

Officials extended that policy for 30 days in April and then again in May, with the latest extension due to end June 21.

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“This is an important decision that will keep people in both of our countries safe,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of the extension of the policy.

President Donald Trump said the two governments would keep talking, and indicated that the border restrictions could be lifted before June 21. 

“We love Canada, so we’re going to be talking, and at the right time, we’ll open that up very quickly,” he said, adding that a reopening could come before June 21.

Between 600,000 and 700,000 Canadians visit Vermont each year, said Nate Formalarie, a spokesperson for the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Each year Canadian visitors spend roughly $60 million on lodging, $30 million in restaurants and the same in retail stores, $20 million on travel services, and $10 million in other sectors, Formalarie said.

According to Canadian government figures, in 2017, 1 million Canadian travelers spent $122 million in the state. In 2014, data shows Vermont ranked among the top 15 states most visited by Canadians.

Torti, who like Charlesworth represents a place that thrives off Canadian travel, highlighted how a dramatic decrease in tourism could ripple across industries.

Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tom Torti. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

“Through every economic downturn we’ve had in this state … the one thing that has sustained the Vermont economy, even in really bad times, has been tourism and hospitality,” he said. “It’s kind of the bedrock.”

Torti said a prolonged border closure would have a worrisome impact on ski resorts and bike trails, inns and bed-and-breakfasts. Many small shops in destination communities, like the Montgomery area near Jay Peak Resort, could find it hard to survive the loss of tourist foot traffic.

“Vermont businesses can’t survive writ large just by Vermonters buying and trading with other Vermonters,” he said. “We’re not a closed economy. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have enough people.”

The summer season is especially concerning. With the border closed and festivals and recreation events canceled, “it’s like a tag team” hitting border economies, said Charlesworth. 

Franklin County fairs and festivals aren’t all huge tourist magnets, she said, but Canadians do turn out for outdoor events like the Stowe 8-Miler race, in adjacent Lamoille County, which was recently canceled and converted into a virtual race.

She even had a name for this year’s expected slow season: “The Summer of No Events.”

But neither she nor Torti want the border policy to loosen before experts believe it’s safe. They and others encourage the state to look at how it might make a future transition easier.

Officials have said recently that they’re monitoring the coronavirus spread in neighboring areas. Nearby Montreal is the epicenter of the virus in Canada — with more than 22,000 confirmed cases and about 2,300 deaths since the end of February, as of last week — and state leaders are wary about acting too soon, given regional conditions. 

“We really need to focus not just on Vermont, but also on our neighboring states (and) in Quebec” as Vermont’s trends improve, said Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak at a press conference last week.

Charlesworth is optimistic, noting that she’s seen area shops adapt to the crisis. But even if the partial closure of the border loosens as ideally as it could, she’s still unsure how businesses may fare.

“We don’t know if the border opening means we’re going to have that type of tourism again,” she said.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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