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Thinking of driving to Canada this summer? Better ask the locals.

National Geographic logo National Geographic 6/26/2020 Johanna Read
a group of people standing next to a body of water: In Niagara Falls, Ontario, tourists take a selfie on March 21, 2020. In 2019, the nearby border between the U.S. and Canada was crossed nearly 6 million times, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, most Americans won’t be able to enter Canada until at least late July. © Photograph by Cole Burston, Bloomberg/Getty Images

In Niagara Falls, Ontario, tourists take a selfie on March 21, 2020. In 2019, the nearby border between the U.S. and Canada was crossed nearly 6 million times, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, most Americans won’t be able to enter Canada until at least late July.

COVID-19 has made summer 2020 the stay-home summer, or at least a stay-close-to-home one. With most of the world largely shut off to Americans, domestic travel, particularly road trips, has come zooming back into style.

And since Canada and the U.S. share the world’s longest undefended border, exploring the planet’s second-largest country might seem like an easy add-on for Americans on family driving getaways to Vermont or Maine, or a good choice for a quick weekend away from Seattle.

But not this year—sorry! (Insert rounded Canadian “o” sound here.) Canada has been off limits to all foreigners since March 21, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that borders will remain closed to all but essential travel until at least July 21. Almost everyone eligible to enter it—Canadians included—is required to quarantine for 14 days. And yes, the government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police do check to make sure.

a man standing next to luggage: A man wearing a mandatory face mask pushes a luggage cart through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on June 23, 2020. © Photograph by Carlos Osorio, Reuters

A man wearing a mandatory face mask pushes a luggage cart through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on June 23, 2020.

Besides, in its most recent weekly survey of how Canadians feel about travelers arriving from anywhere, government tourism agency Destination Canada found that only between 9 and 18 percent of respondents “strongly or somewhat agree with welcoming visitors to their community” from the U.S. Only about 50 percent of respondents are comfortable with travelers coming from within their own province, let alone from outside the country.

A chillier attitude from up north?

a group of people standing next to a body of water: Canadians gather—at social distance—in Toronto’s Humber Bay Shores Park on May 24, 2020. © Photograph by Carlos Osorio, Reuters

Canadians gather—at social distance—in Toronto’s Humber Bay Shores Park on May 24, 2020.

Canadian writer and photographer Steffani Cameron understands wanderlust—she spent four years traveling abroad before returning home last year. “The best travel happens when you realize you’re a guest in that place. Americans tend to forget that,” she says. “But you’d never force yourself into someone’s house when you’re not welcome, so why would you travel to a country that’s telling you you’re unwelcomed?”

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: Patrons sat behind a protective barrier in a Montreal restaurant as dining restrictions due to COVID-19 lifted June 22, 2020 © Photograph by Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Patrons sat behind a protective barrier in a Montreal restaurant as dining restrictions due to COVID-19 lifted June 22, 2020

Marissa Anwar, partnerships director at Toronto’s Darling Escapes, a travel website and booking agency, explains: “My fear is that visitors won’t be as invested in the safety of our communities, and that will cause [COVID] numbers to spike, causing further strain on our healthcare system. And while I’d love to see my American friends and family members, my hope is that they will stay home for a while—or at least away from Canada.”

(Related: Craving a vacation? Read our tips on travel during a pandemic.)

Even if the border were opened tomorrow, Canadians probably wouldn’t cheer. Though the Destination Canada survey doesn’t ask the reasons for the disparity, Canadians are eyeing their closest neighbor a little warily these days. And it’s not just because the U.S. has the world’s highest COVID case count.

Fresh on many Canadian minds: the U.S.’s pandemic travel bans, stranded cruise ship passengers, threats to limit PPE shipments to other countries, and even a leaked Pentagon memo seeking U.S. $145 million and 916 military personnel to surveil the Canadian border. As Cameron says, “Americans rejected others at their ports and wanted to put troops at the border. We’re not putting the army at our doors, but we’re not opening our doors either. We’d like to see America drop by for some coffee…but not today, not now.”

Neighbors, not twins

For Americans, Canada often seems like a northern annex rather than a separate country. The two have many similarities—TV shows, food, a largely English-speaking population. And both countries have recently protested to eliminate systemic racism and police brutality.

But Canada has its own laws, culture, currency, and measurement system. (No, the weather doesn’t change from balmy to freezing at the 49th parallel; 32 Celsius is a nice summer day in both Detroit and Windsor). But its citizens value—and want to protect—their strong social safety net and health care system. As Cameron says, “Often it feels like Americans think our country is their consolation prize for when theirs isn’t working. ‘Moving to Canada’ is a common refrain.” And since U.S. COVID cases remain the highest in the world, Canadians aren’t exactly anxious to have Yanks emigrate now, thanks.

But it’s not just you, America. “The effects of the pandemic are traveler agnostic,” says Gloria Loree, Destination Canada’s senior vice president of marketing strategy and chief marketing officer. “Canada’s border is closed to all foreign nationals.”

You won’t be able to get in by water, either: Canada first delayed the cruise ship season until July 1, but now prohibits all but small ships until October 31. This essentially eliminates cruising in 2020, and most lines canceled their 2020 Alaska cruises due to this, the CDC’s No Sail Order, and Alaska’s requirement for a negative COVID test or quarantine.

Canada has a few essential travel exceptions: truckers bringing goods over the border, foreign nationals who are immediate family members of Canadians, and Americans heading home to Alaska. Don’t cheat the system, though. Canucks may lose their customary politeness if you risk their health just for your vacation. In Canada, “peace, order, and good government” is taken just as seriously as America’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Will health restrictions make the economy sick?

“Every country and community is concerned about [its own] health and safety, and health care systems in remote communities are more fragile,” says Destination Canada’s Loree. As with most places around the world, tourism in Canada is aimed inward for now.

Much of Canada is even closed to Canadians, given concern about smaller communities’ capacity to handle the virus. The province of Prince Edward Island, for example, has only 17 intensive care beds. Canada’s three northern territories and several provinces have closed their borders to nonessential travel or imposed 14-day quarantine periods. So, that means only residents of Atlantic Canada have access to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Iceberg Alley and, for now, Northwest Territories residents have Wood Buffalo National Park—which is bigger than Switzerland—all to themselves.

(Related: Learn why the Yukon has such dazzling scenery.)

Tourism, particularly in the summer, is an essential part of Canada’s economy. With international and some internal borders closed, businesses and the economy are at risk. “Travel between provinces and opening borders to American and other international visitors is paramount to the survival of Canada’s CAD $102 billion visitor economy,” says Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia. Canadians rely on international tourists, particularly Americans. “The U.S. is British Columbia’s largest international market,” says Kristen Learned of Destination British Columbia. In 2019, Americans accounted for more than 40 percent of B.C.’s CAD $7.25 billion in overnight international visitor spending.

But, due to COVID-19, Canadians must solely support their tourist attractions for a while. There are advantages: Canadians have a better shot at a coveted summer reservation at the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise or can sample more Québécois foods on the Charlevoix Flavour Trail. “Nuanced, thoughtful, community-based tourism lifts up culture, art, community confidence, and pride, and ultimately, innovation,” says Loree. “Focusing on the domestic campaign now allows us to start building confidence at home first, and eventually [in] international markets.”

Canadian citizens won’t get summer 2020 travel subsidies toward domestic travel like the Japanese might, but the Canadian government is investing $30 million in tourism (U.S. $22 million) over the next 18 months. It’s aimed at community recovery and encouraging Canadians to “discover their own backyard” this summer and to build demand for autumn and winter travel. Learned describes it as an effort to “support your friends, families, and neighbors, and the small businesses that make up the foundation” of Canada.

However, without more help, there’s fear many tourism businesses won’t survive. Paul Melhus, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based ToursByLocals, says Canadian tourism businesses need “direct financial support until international tourism comes back. Even under the most optimistic scenario, there is no way domestic travel is going to make up for the loss.”

Opening borders further is essential to “salvage Canada’s visitor economy,” argues Judas, as “international tourists typically outspend Canadians by a margin of four to one.” Most tourism enterprises rely on “higher-yield American visitors to sustain their operations,” he says, so there’s only so much domestic spending can help. There’s pressure from airlines, hotels, and other tourism businesses, with the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable writing an open letter to government leaders calling for a reopening of travel to assist the industry that employs 1.8 million Canadians.

Still, for many residents, health and safety still outweigh economic concerns. Canada’s Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, said June 14, “we know our tourism sector is suffering, that people want mobility to travel—we’re working through all those questions right now.” To start, Canada implemented mandatory mask-wearing on planes; it’s also phasing in airport temperature checks and deepening its border screening protocols.

Together again someday

“We’ll Meet Again” was a popular song—and saying—during World War II among Americans and Canadians alike. Then, both countries were united against one enemy, just like during this pandemic. So expect friendly border crossings again soon—or soonish. “When the time is right and it’s safe to do so, we will welcome U.S. travelers and help them navigate the new landscape,” says Loree.

If that means temperatures are below freezing and it’s late 2020 before Americans can scoot up to Montreal or fly to Whistler, remember that Canada has fab ski hills. Just pack your toque—that’s Canuck for beanie—eh?

Johanna Read is a Canadian writer and photographer specializing in responsible tourism. A former Canadian government policy executive, she worked on issues including pandemic influenza and food safety. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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