When Anna Pierce first heard the Canadian border would be reopening to fully vaccinated U.S. travelers, she was nearly brought to happy tears.
The vice president and general manager of Niagara Helicopters, an Ontario-based company that offers helicopter tours, described operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic as a “terrible roller coaster,” with travel restrictions for both domestic and international travelers curbing business dramatically.
“On a typical day (before the pandemic), we would do upwards of 80 flights with six passengers in each flight,” she said. “It went down to as low as four flights a day last summer.”
Pierce hopes Monday’s border reopening date will allow Niagara Helicopters to salvage reservations in September and October, a popular time because the company can offer an aerial view of Niagara Falls’ changing leaves, but the company is lacking one key component: staffing.
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The company has 18 employees, less than half of what it normally has this time of year. Pierce said the company needs at least 24, but employees are so in-demand that she gets a handful of no-shows every time she sets up interviews.
“People are just being snapped up left, right and center. I’ve never seen anything like that,” Pierce said. “We’re not expecting business to surge to 2019 levels, but we’re hoping for the best (when travel restrictions ease) and we hope we have enough employees to service them.”
Canadian businesses near the border have spent weeks preparing for Monday, when Canada will start allowing fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents to cross the border. But the expected uptick in travel comes as businesses across North America face staffing shortages and supply chain issues.
That could mean travelers to Canada will have a harder time getting certain reservations or face longer wait times, according to some business owners.
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Monday’s easing of travel restrictions is expected to boost traffic to Canada, but businesses and local leaders say it will take time before tourism rates are comparable to 2019 levels.
Denis Vinette, vice president of the Canada Border Services Agency’s travelers branch, told USA TODAY the agency predicts a 10% to 25% increase in traffic toward Canada on Aug. 9 – a significant increase, but still just about 20% of historical volumes.
But even a small boost is good news for cities like Toronto, where Americans make up the majority of the nearly 30 million annual tourists it gets in a typical year. A 2020 report from Destination Toronto, the marketing organization for Toronto’s tourism industry, found the city lost about $8.4 billion in economic activity after one year of the pandemic.
“It’s been devastating,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “If you look at a lot of the major tourist destinations downtown … they’ve been vacant.”
Niagara Falls, Ontario Mayor Jim Diodati said he doesn’t expect a “massive rush” come Monday, especially knowing travelers trying to cross the land border will face longer wait times thanks to enhanced public health measures such as a requirement to show proof of vaccination.
“I think the first to come across won’t be your typical tourists,” Diodati said, adding that he expects to see more Americans crossing to visit family or property.
He doesn’t anticipate international travel to pick up until next year, a long wait for a city that gets roughly half its tourism revenue from American visitors.
“The American tourists matter,” Diodati said. “(Local businesses) are already planning for next (travel) season.”
Even if travel’s resurgence will take time, businesses have already started to see an uptick in demand.
Ann Marie Nitso, owner of the Old Stone Inn Boutique Hotel in Niagara Falls, said the hotel doubled its bookings shortly after the Canadian government announced the border reopening date. She estimates about 65% of the hotel’s business comes from American visitors.
“There’s been a lot of pent-up demand,” Nitso said. “I’ve been receiving reservations for the Christmas period. So people are definitely more confident now that the borders have reopened.”
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Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels of Canada, said he has started to see “positive momentum” that he expects will continue through the remainder of the summer.
“With the announcement of the border reopening, we saw a much more significant increase (in international bookings),” Cleary said. “We are starting to see a future mix closer to 2019 levels … (and) we are seeing booking windows slowly lengthen into August, September, and October.”
Staffing shortages and supply chain issues
Dan Lehmann, owner of the Duck Bay Lodge near the Lake of the Woods, said his limited staff is rushing to get the fishing resort ready for business after sitting empty two years.
“The tough part is … the fact that the supply chain is really interrupted,” he said. “Something as simple as getting some 2-inch nails at the hardware store, it’s not available. … All the different little parts we use with boats and motors and running the lodge aren’t necessarily available like they used to be.”
Staffing is also a major issues for businesses. Nitso of the Old Stone Inn said her hotel has had to outsource housekeeping jobs for the first time due to a lack of workers.
“It’s something we never thought we’d have to do,” she said.
Hanif Harji, CEO of Scale Hospitality, which owns a number of restaurants in Toronto, said the company is already struggling to keep up with demand with its current staff size. Certain restaurants have had to close for lunches or one full day each week to make sure employees get time off.
“All (the lifting of restrictions) is going to do is add to the demand, but demand is outpacing supply today,” Harji said. “The tourism business is going to be great, but it’s also going to be very challenging for people to find reservations. Restaurants are being booked up two, three, four weeks in advance right now.”
Harji said he’s trying to increase staffing levels 30% to meet current demand levels.
“Even though the border may be opening Aug. 9, I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks to staffed up and ready to manage that kind of volume,” Harji said. But “in the long term, I think (the border reopening) is going to be great for business.”
The effects are seen in Quebec as well, where Michelle Doré runs three hotels: Hôtel Champlain, Hôtel Jardin SteAnne and Auberge Place d’Armes. She estimated the business is short-staffed by about 20% after many of her former staff members left the hospitality industry.
“We will have the pleasure of having (American tourists), but it’ll be … challenging to give the best service that we give,” she said. “Maybe we’ll ask them when they come, can you be just a little patient or give us a little break? … The service will be there, but maybe a little bit longer.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.