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Region set to cash in on American tourists' return

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Canada is set to reopen its border to American visitors for the first time in 17 months, a huge win for Southwestern Ontario businesses and institutions that rely heavily on summertime U.S. tourists.

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The 8,891-kilometre border is reopening to fully vaccinated Americans and permanent residents starting Aug. 9, the government announced this week. That means a return of U.S. travellers, and the greenbacks they spend.

“It’s a positive development,” said Anita Gaffney, executive director of the Stratford Festival.

In pre-pandemic times, about 20 to 25 per cent of our audience came from the United States. So that represented about 100,000 tickets for us each season. . . . We’ve heard from lots of U.S. patrons that they’re eager to come back to Canada.” 

The renowned festival reopened this month with COVID-19 restrictions and has already sold nearly all its tickets for this month – some of which went to early buyers from the U.S., Gaffney said.

Neema Bickersteth co-stars in Stratford Festival’s Why We Tell the Story cabaret, which opened earlier this month.(David Hou/Stratford Festival)
Neema Bickersteth co-stars in Stratford Festival’s Why We Tell the Story cabaret, which opened earlier this month.(David Hou/Stratford Festival)

As Ontario’s COVID rules loosen, Stratford Festival officials hope to increase capacity by early- to mid-August to accommodate more people. Its performances run until Oct. 9.

It’s a similar story at the Buxton National Historic Site, about 15 kilometres southwest of Chatham, which served as a refuge for fugitive Black slaves escaping into Canada via the Underground Railroad.

“We’re really excited to be able to have American visitors back, our history here being both Canadian stories (and) an American story,” assistant curator Kimberly Head said. “We’ve had a lot of American visitors in the past, (including) repeat visitors.”

Nearly half of its visitors are Americans, Head estimates, noting many groups come from Michigan, Maryland and as far afield as California.

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As the museum gears up to reopen next week, most bookings so far are from Canadian tourists, but Head expects more U.S. visitors in coming months. “There’s a lot of Americans who have familial ties to this area, and they absolutely want to come and visit.”

Tourism season typically begins in May and runs into the fall, with U.S. visitors making up nearly 70 per cent of arrivals to Canada, according to Statistics Canada’s 2019 figures.

“U.S. travellers have been a big part of the tourism economy . . . so we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Joanne Wolnik, executive director of Southwest Ontario Tourism Corp. (SWOTC).

“This is great news that our businesses can start thinking about welcoming the U.S. customers that they’re used to having back to the region.”

But as restrictions ease and the border reopens, Wolnik cautions the tourism industry is still getting back on its feet.

“Some operators are having a hard time bringing staff back now that they’ve been away for so long,” she said. “So, ramping up and bringing staff back on board to have the capacity to welcome the travellers back is something that we’re really conscious of.”

It’s not just tourism zones preparing for American visitors’ return. Residential areas – including cottages along Southwestern Ontario’s lakeshores – can expect to see more people soon, too.

Mayor Bill Weber of Lambton Shores, which includes the beach town Grand Bend, is eagerly awaiting U.S. visitors to the community.

“There will be some Americans eager to come over and go to their cottages,” he said. “If people are vaccinated and safe, we welcome them back.”

Canadians looking to cross the U.S. border, meanwhile, will have to wait. The U.S. said it would remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21.

cleon@postmedia.com

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The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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