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U.S.-Canada Border Closure Limits Montana Retail Sales, Tourism, Family Reunions

Vehicles drive past a sign at the Montana-Canada border.
Spend A Day Touring, LLC/FLICKR (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Vehicles drive past a sign at the Montana-Canada border.

The 545 mile border between Montana and Canada has been closed to nonessential traffic since March to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The closure has also limited tourism, retail sales and family gatherings.

Canadians are usually an important economic driver in Montana. According to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana more than 1.3 million Canadians visited Montana in 2019, spending nearly $166 million.

But since March, Canadian visitor expenditures are down 95 percent, says Dylan Boyle with Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Obviously with the border closed to nonessential travel we are missing a significant portion of our visitation expenditures from our Canadian visitors, especially Alberta," Boyle says.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, an important Canadian draw, last spring closed its ski season early. The drop in Canadian visitation extended into the summer season with a drop in lodging numbers for the region.

Summer tourism did get a boost from American tourists.

"They are turning more to domestic travel," says Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

"So it’s, if you will, the folks who already live in the west discovering their own amenities and their own attractions, so to speak."

Barkey says domestic sales for durable goods like groceries and gas are down. So is health care usage by Canadians, who have their own national health care system.

"For whatever reason for delay or choice they have historically at times availed themselves of the hospitals and facilities in the state," Barkey said.

The border closure and local COVID hospitalizations have put Montana’s healthcare out of reach.

One area still operating as usual is trade. The Montana Motor Carriers Association says trucks are still crossing into Canada.

And so are farmers, says Sheridan County Commissioner Jon Bolstad.

"Agriculturally wise it has not been too bad because our farmers are still able to go up there as essential to get parts if you need to go to Canada to get parts," Bolstad says.

Bolstad says commodities are still coming down from up north and oil can still go up.

He says there’s also an emotional cost to restrictions on border crossings.

"There are a certain number of people who have grandkids on this side of the border that haven’t seen their grandkids or north of the border," Bolstad said.

Border restrictions will not change any time soon despite the optimism over the first limited distribution of vaccines.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Canada would not lift restrictions at the U.S. Canada border until the coronavirus is significantly under control throughout the world.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.