The CAT Ferry which takes tourists between Maine and Nova Scotia, pictured here in Portland in 2016. The ferry has not been in operation this summer, due to the closure of the US-Canada border and the ban on non-essential travel. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

HOULTON, Maine — With the pandemic slowly subsiding, Americans are flocking to visit Maine this summer, helping the crucial hospitality and tourism sector that was hit hard by the pandemic.

But the Canadian tourists are not. Canada recently extended its non-essential travel ban on the U.S. border for at least another month, though family members and dual citizens may now cross without quarantine.

The extension officially stretches the travel ban into the busy summer months of Maine’s tourist season. Retailers in areas normally dependent on Canadian customers could see their revenues fail to go back to normal, preventing a full recovery of the usually vibrant summer economy in Maine this year. Towns on the Canadian border, which normally provide services to Canadians traveling farther downstate or trying to take advantage of better price deals, may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of the travel ban. Not only do they miss out from Canadian tourists traveling into Maine and purchasing goods, but also from Americans who may be traveling upstate to enter Canada.

Data from the Maine Office of Tourism also suggest that Canadians tend to punch above their weight when it comes to spending money on visits to the Pine Tree State. According to data from 2019, the latest year before the pandemic began, Canadians made up 14 percent of all visitors to Maine, and made up almost 22 percent of total retail sales made to tourists. Canadians in total spent $1.2 billion on tourism-related expenditures in Maine. 

Many Canadians travel to Maine — particularly around the Bangor area — to take advantage of fluctuations in the exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. currencies, as well as the lower cost of some goods in the U.S. compared to their own nation, according to Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron.

“There’s no question about it, having the Canadian market back is absolutely a major part to [return] to a little bit of normality — because the Canadian market is a big part of the industry overall,” Cameron said.

The most recent survey of Canadian visitors by the Maine Office of Tourism done in 2015 showed that 23 percent of Canadians primarily visited the Bangor and western Maine regions, shopping at stores in Bangor’s downtown and at the Bangor Mall.  The second most popular stop was at Maine’s beaches, which reported that 22 percent of visitors were Canadian. Down East and Acadia made up 12 percent of Canadians’ tourist destinations, and Portland made up 10 percent. Eighty percent of Canadians stayed in paid accommodations such as hotels and inns, and a majority of them said shopping was their main travel interest in visiting the state.

The lack of Canadian tourists is unlikely to have a big impact on major tourism areas, such as Acadia National Park. Despite the fact that the CAT Ferry, which runs from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, is not in operation for the second straight year, businesses in the area are bolstered by a larger-than-normal influx of American tourists, and could possibly see a record number of visits.

But in the Maine Highlands, and towns hugging Canada, businesses feel the impact of the border closure. The Washington County town of Lubec, for instance, usually serves both Americans and Canadians making their way to and from Campobello Island — the former New Brunswick vacation home of Franklin D. Roosevelt — which normally hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year. With the border closed, travel to and from Campobello has stopped.

Gale White, the owner of Lubec Brewing, said that despite the lifting of mask and social distancing restrictions, his overall sales are down about 20 percent due to the border closure.

“There’s the people who go specifically to see Roosevelt’s cottage, but there’s also people who are American citizens who own property there and would normally summer there,” White said. “They normally would go there, and then spend a lot of money here in Lubec, going out to dinner and going to my place.”

In Houlton, located three miles from the border, Canadians crossed frequently before the pandemic to buy grocery products such as poultry and milk, as well as fill up at local gas stations on their way south.

Mike Folsom, the owner of Shiretown Package Receiving in Houlton, has been feeling the impact of the border closure since it was implemented more than a year ago. Before the pandemic, Canadians ordered goods from U.S. retailers and had them shipped to his business, where they then picked them up to avoid shipping costs into Canada.

Mike Folsom, owner of Shiretown Packaging and Receiving in Houlton, has been unable to conduct normal business since the border between the U.S. and Canada closed in March of 2020. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

With the border still closed to non-essential travel, Folsom’s main business has effectively ground to a halt over the last 15 months.

“Some truck drivers have ordered packages and they’re still coming to check them out, but it’s few and far between,” Folsom said. “They want to come over just as bad as we want them to come. I get calls two or three times a week saying they miss coming over.”

In order to stay afloat, Folsom has been purchasing and reselling products such as motorcycles and ATVs. But he hopes that he can resume his normal business soon.

“It was either do something else in the meantime or close business,” Folsom said. “And I’ve worked too hard to keep it going. I’ve been here for eight years, and I’d like to continue doing it.”

Adding to the fear of another summer without Canadian tourists is the lack of any clear indication from either country of when the border might reopen. U.S. politicians have been growing more vocal, with Democrats and Republicans alike in favor of reopening. In Maine, Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree have called for a reopening, saying failure to do so harms businesses and families in Maine.

Maine isn’t the only place affected, should the travel ban persist. Places like Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, which border the Canadian province of Ontario, are also heavily dependent on tourists who travel to visit places such as Lake Michigan and Niagara Falls.

Democrat Brian Higgins, a member of the U.S. House from the district that includes Buffalo, has been one of the most vocal politicians on either side of the border advocating for a reopening. He sharply criticized the most recent renewal of the travel ban, using an expletive to describe the extension and noting how National Hockey League players have been authorized to travel to Canada for playoff games, but Americans have been excluded.

“This is a very reasonable level of frustration based on the conflicting information, the lack of seriousness,” Higgins said in a recent interview. “It’s not only an economic issue, it’s a life quality issue, it’s a mental health issue.”

Internal Canadian politics might also be a factor, with Trudeau’s Liberal Party under pressure from Doug Ford, the conservative premier of Ontario — one of the provinces hardest hit by the pandemic — to keep some restrictions in place. But Higgins said he’s spoken to several Canadian politicians, including members of Parliament and mayors of border communities, who all want fewer restrictions.

“When you loosen these restrictions, you’re not doing so in a reckless way,” Higgins said. “Nobody’s saying to simply open up. There are conditions and that’s what happens in a time of a public health crisis.”