The border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in Houlton. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The United States reopens its borders today to travelers from neighboring Canada and Mexico after an unprecedented 20 months of closure meant to contain the spread of the COVID-19  pandemic.

For Mainers, this means that Canadians, who traditionally make up a sizable chunk of tourists to the state, can cross over to enjoy recreational activities and take advantage of price differences on consumer goods. But Maine tourism groups and border towns may not be ready to celebrate the return just yet because crossing the border remains complicated.

Although the U.S. is allowing fully vaccinated Canadians entry, the Canadian government still requires its citizens returning home to produce a negative polymerase chain reaction, known as a PCR test, taken no more than 72 hours prior to return, as it does with U.S. citizens who wish to travel to Canada. That process is costly and the results may not be available within the required timeframe. As long as the measure stays in place, local day trips to Maine by Canadians are unlikely to resume to pre-pandemic level.

Politicians on both sides of the border who wanted the U.S. to reopen are advocating for Canada to end the testing measures. U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-New York, told local broadcaster WGRZ that he had met with mayors in the neighboring province of Ontario to discuss ending the requirements.

In Maine, which usually sees large numbers of Canadian tourists throughout the year, the reopening is seen as a marginal step.

“Obviously, this is good news to finally have it open, and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Tony Cameron, the CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. “But we’re kind of at a point in the year where there’s not going to be a huge impact for this past season, because the season is pretty much done.”

Although commerce did well this year thanks to a boom in domestic tourism, towns in Maine’s border regions were more heavily affected by the closure. According to a survey put out by the association to its member businesses in July, 32 percent of respondents said they were affected by the border closure over the past year. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration opened up relief funds for businesses located near the border to help them offset some of the losses incurred.

“I do think that the border regions were certainly more heavily impacted than some of the other regions,” Cameron said. “Having the Canadian market back is an important segment of the industry.”

The summer months of Maine’s peak tourism season have come and gone, but there are still recreational activities for the winter months, such as snowmobiling across Maine’s northern border regions, that could attract Canadians.

Canadians driving through the state on their way south for the winter could help bring some business to Maine’s border regions as well, Cameron said.

But for now, indications are that the reopening of the border will not do much to bring Canadians back to northern Maine. At Ivey’s Motor Lodge in Houlton, one of the state’s major border towns, general manager Louise Martin said she’s noticed no visible uptake in the number of reservations ahead of the Nov. 8 reopening.

“We had an increase when the border [to Canada] opened for Americans, but it’s slowed down a bit since then,” she said. “We’ve still been busy, but it’s hard to tell if anyone here is coming in from Canada.”