Americans missed in Canada, but with limits

A deserted stretch of Rue Notre Dame West in Montreal, Canada, earlier this month. The absence of American tourists is felt acutely in many quarters of the country.
A deserted stretch of Rue Notre Dame West in Montreal, Canada, earlier this month. The absence of American tourists is felt acutely in many quarters of the country.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Mr David McMillan, co-owner of Montreal's famed restaurant Joe Beef, used to spend his days obsessing over signature dishes like lobster spaghetti.

These days, he has another preoccupation: studying American vaccination rates.

Before the pandemic, so many American gastronomy pilgrims came each week to Joe Beef that many local residents, facing a 10-week waiting list, gave up trying.

The Americans, he recalled wistfully, thought nothing of buying expensive bottles of champagne and slurping oysters until midnight.

"Ah, how I miss the Americans," says Mr McMillan, who presides over four restaurants including Liverpool House, where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once bromanced former United States president Barack Obama.

"Now, I look every day at how the US vaccination is going," he added. "And I get messages every day from American clients asking when they can get back in."

It is a question many in the Canadian tourism industry have also been asking, ever since the Canada-US border was closed to non-essential travellers in March.

The loss of American visitors, armed with their strong dollars and consuming zeal, has buffeted popular destinations like Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver. Canadian airlines have been forced to make thousands of layoffs.

More than two-thirds of the 21 million international tourists who came to Canada in 2019 were from the US, with Americans pumping about US$8.7 billion (S$11.5 billion) into the economy, compared with the nearly US$1.3 billion spent by Chinese visitors and about US$1 billion by Britons.

Canadians have long had a love-hate relationship with their larger, showier neighbour. That ambivalence was magnified during the Donald Trump administration, when the mercurial US president slapped punishing tariffs on the country and called its Prime Minister "very dishonest".

But it has always been more love than hate when it comes to travel between the two countries, with Americans drawn by Canada's proximity, its common language in most regions and its mix of cosmopolitan cities and natural landscapes.

The inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, who spent her disco-dancing teenage years in Montreal, has renewed the ardour between the two allies, while vaccination has created cautious optimism about taming the pandemic.

Still, recent polls show that the vast majority of Canadians want the borders to remain closed.

Canadians have looked with some horror at the spiralling infection rates in the US, and the handling of the coronavirus during the Trump administration.

Ms Melanie Joly, Canada's minister of economic development, said keeping the borders closed was pragmatic. "We can't talk about reopening the economy until we stop the spread of the virus."

She hoped the travel industry would be "back on its feet" by September, as vaccination in Canada and the US accelerated.

As it is, Canada itself is experiencing a lethal second wave, with a curfew in Quebec, a lockdown in most parts of Ontario and border restrictions in the country's Atlantic provinces that have required even Canadians from other provinces to quarantine.

"The general public is not concerned about the tourism sector. They don't want to see Americans, French or Germans, for that matter," said Mr Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. "The Biden administration is seen as a welcome change. But the vaccine isn't a cure-all since it will take months to roll out."

In Canada, the lonesomeness for the Americans has nevertheless been acute in many quarters, from eerily vacant city squares to shuttered music festivals.

At Ontario's Stratford Festival, where the high culture of Shakespeare mingles with more populist productions like Little Shop Of Horrors, the forced cancellation of last year's season hit local bed-and-breakfasts as well as shops selling "To Bieber or Not to Bieber" T-shirts celebrating the city's local son Justin Bieber.

The festival's executive director, Ms Anita Gaffney, said Americans made up a quarter of the festival's 500,000 paying customers, with some seeing seven plays in a week.

In Montreal, known for its European flair, libertine spirit and events like the International Jazz Festival, Mr Yves Lalumiere, chief executive of Tourisme Montreal, was hoping for "revenge spending by American visitors after months of privation" when the borders finally opened, hopefully by summer.

But not all Americans are missed, including the raucous American alcohol and pot tourists, who used to come on weekends to take advantage of Quebec's strip bars, drinking age of 18 and government-owned shops selling pre-rolled marijuana joints.

Mr Philippe Orfali, a Montreal resident, observed that the decrease in American tourists had helped tame the area's Airbnb rental frenzy and forced many apartment owners to put their short-term rentals back on the long-term rental market.

"This should come as good news in a city that has been struggling for years with a housing shortage," he said, even as he added that rental prices had remained relatively high.

Mr McMillan said the loss of the Americans had some advantages, allowing Joe Beef to reconnect with local residents.

In British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, an ascendant wine region, Mr John Skinner, owner of Painted Rock Estate Winery, lamented that not being able to host American weddings or to attract American oenophiles, had dented business.

But this has been more than offset by the proliferation of Canadians doing staycations. "The hotels and restaurants have been full of Canadian wine-tourists, so I can't say we have missed the Americans."

He quickly added: "We love Americans. But they can come visit us when they are all inoculated and we are too."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Americans missed in Canada, but with limits'. Subscribe