It’s been a long time since Sue Blouin counted on Canadian customers to stop by her farm and store in Enosburg Falls for baked goods and goat cheese. Before the pandemic, Canadians accounted for 15% of traffic there. But over the past two years, that has shrunk to almost nothing.
Although the Quebec border is only 10 miles north of the Boston Post Dairy and its small store, the rigors of COVID-19 testing requirements to cross have all but stifled the flow of Canadian shoppers.
“They just didn’t bother,” Blouin said.
More than one million people crossed into Vermont through the state’s 15 Canadian border crossings during the federal fiscal year that ended September 30, 2019; just 437,000 did so in 2020, according to US Customs and Border Protection. In 2021, the number fell to 82,000, the agency said.
But they started to come back. On April 1, Canada dropped its testing rules for people entering or returning to the country. Since then, Blouin has experienced a change. “There was definitely a pickup,” she said.
It’s too early to tell if visitor numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels ahead of the busy summer tourist season, but people operating businesses in northern Vermont say Canadians are trickling in.
“People who have summer homes on the lake that we haven’t seen in two years are now starting to show up at my store again,” said state Rep. Mike Marcotte (R-Coventry ), longtime gas owner Jimmy Kwik. train station and convenience store in Newport. Many Canadians own second homes in Vermont, especially along Lake Memphremagog.
“And we’re starting to see more Canadian plates,” Marcotte added.
Kevin Mack, chief operating officer of the Burke Mountain Resort, noted an increase in hotel bookings in Canada through Tuango, a Canadian app similar to Groupon that offers its members deals on getaways and events.
“In six days it’s available, we’ve sold dozens of packages to our guests in Quebec,” Mack said in late April.
Data from AirDNA, which tracks the short-term rental industry, shows how much Canadians’ travel to Vermont fell in March 2020. Canadian short-term housing reviews in Green Mountain State fell about 90% in June, July and August 2020. compared to those months in 2019. The pattern also happened last summer. And in the first two months of this year, reviews are again down more than 80% from 2019.
Vermont has a long history of close economic relations with its northern neighbor. The state shares its two largest bodies of water, Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog, with Canada. Vermont has a trade office in Montreal, and there are dozens of Canadian-owned businesses in the state, including two of Vermont’s largest maple syrup companies, Highland Sugarworks and Sapjack. Canada is Vermont’s largest trading partner.
Canadian tourists typically make up about one-third of visitors to the Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant, a North Hero resort. Some of the guests who have canceled reservations for the summers of 2020 and 2021 are calling to say they are 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 do it this year,'” Roberts said.
Many Vermonters have family members on both sides of the border, and in some northern communities, like Derby Line — where the international border crosses the Haskell Free Library & Opera House — towns were once virtually merged. Over the decades, border residents have grown accustomed to crossing small, rural U.S. Customs and Border Protection outposts for groceries, work, or family matters. Canadians who lived near the border often headed south to buy gasoline, which was generally cheaper in the United States.
When the border closed abruptly in March 2020, business and essential travel continued. But family visits have come to an end, as has tourism. Jay Peak Resort, which attracted 50% of its visitors from Canada, saw those customers disappear in 2020.
COVID-19 safety measures shut down most resort operations in the early weeks of the pandemic, and although Jay Peak began to reopen that summer, business at the resort – which also has a water park and an 18-hole golf course – looked terrible.
“Our Canadian business wasn’t broken; it was non-existent,” said JJ Toland, director of communications for Jay Peak.
Travel restrictions kept some foreigners away; many local customers were hesitant to venture out for security reasons; and complex social distancing rules for hotels, restaurants and shops limited the number of people who could stay or dine.
The guidelines for shopping, recreation and travel were even more confusing for Americans trying to enter Canada. And they still confuse. Gillian Sewake, who runs the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, said she had recently struggled to understand the rules as she planned a family trip to Canada this fall. Sewake, whose office is located at the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center, said locals sometimes come for help with the Canadian app ArriveCAN.
Although the testing requirement is gone, anyone traveling to Canada by road must still use the app to enter their proof of vaccination. Some who return to Canada are subject to random PCR testing.
There is no such requirement for those heading south into the United States
“There’s a fair amount of confusion left,” Sewake said.
Even before the recent relaxation of border testing requirements, things had started to look up at some Vermont tourist attractions. The missing Canadians were replaced by American travelers, who postponed their vacations abroad and instead drove to destinations such as Vermont. Many of the state’s restaurants, stores and other attractions saw very heavy 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 posted its highest-ever revenue in the fiscal year that ended in April, Toland said.
“We came in 32% better than we thought,” Toland said. “And it was 99.99% domestic. It more than made up for the loss to the Canadiens.”
Reservations for season passes and weekend stays are already up sharply at the golf course, where 70% of visitors came from Canada before the pandemic, Toland said.
“This year we expect a return to close to normal,” Toland said. “We are seeing a lot more Canadian postal codes.”
A similar phenomenon occurred on the shores of Lake Champlain. Jack Wallace, the co-owner of the Burlington Harbor marina, relied on the Canadians for about half of his business before 2020. They have largely stayed away over the past two years, but domestic boaters have filled the 180 marina slips, lured by an activity that trade groups say has become more popular.
“So the US client, luckily for us, met some of that demand that we lost,” Wallace said.
Wallace rented nearly all of his full-season briefs for this summer. It’s also leaving 40 slips open for short-term bookings, and Canadian bookings for those stays are increasing.
The recent increase in travel goes both ways. In mid-April, Marcotte, the owner of the Jimmy Kwik gas station, 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, Quebec. Before COVID-19, Marcotte and his wife used to visit at least once a month and stop at a Quebec grocery store to buy French cheeses, sauce and smoked meats.
Since their last visit, Marcotte’s mother-in-law had moved into an assisted living facility.
“It was nice to have a meal with them and sit and chat,” Marcotte said.