Whatcom County residents have noticed the increase in Canadian visitors in recent years, but a new report sheds light on just how dramatic the shift has been toward shopping.
The Whatcom Council of Governments released the results of an interim survey taken this summer of travelers going south through the region's five border crossings. The survey estimates 310,000 vehicles crossed the border into Whatcom County with shopping the travelers' primary purpose in July; that's more than quadruple the number of vehicles during the same period in 2007.
The percentage of those interviewed that listed shopping as the primary reason for crossing the border was 45 percent, up from 19 percent in 2007.
The July survey was done by Western Washington University's Border Policy Research Institute, which employed Western students or graduates to do the study. The second wave of surveys will be done in February 2014.
The increased number of shoppers didn't come as a surprise to David Davidson, associate director at the Border Policy Institute, given the general trend he's seen in the Bellingham retail areas. What's interesting to him is that it came on so strong after 2008. Between 2001 and 2008 the border traffic volume was around the same each year, despite an improving Canadian dollar.
He believes one factor is that as the Canadian dollar hit parity with the U.S. dollar, British Columbia residents realized how much they could save traveling south of the border.
Other possible factors include the increased popularity of the NEXUS card, which gets travelers through the border more quickly, and travelers and border agencies adjusting to the increased security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This is the third such survey by the institute, with the other two being done in 2000-01 and 2007-08. For the first time, this report identified trips made mostly for buying gasoline. Surveyors found that 18 percent of all trips listed buying gas as the primary reason for crossing the border.
One other major change from the 2007-08 survey is travel frequency. The portion of non-NEXUS travelers who said they travel across the border at least once per month jumped from 40 percent to 60 percent; more than half of NEXUS cardholders said they cross the border at least once a week.
With many more travelers crossing the border to shop, the relative share for other reasons has changed. Those that said vacation was the primary reason for crossing the border dropped from 31 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2013, despite the fact the absolute number increased, said Hugh Conroy, project manager at the Whatcom Council of Governments.
The same goes for the airport category, which dropped from 3 percent in 2007 to 1 percent in 2013, despite the increase in overall travelers to the airport.
One other category that had a significant increase was picking up the mail; that rose from 2 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2013. That's likely fueled by shopping as well, because it's usually cheaper for Canadians to ship online purchases to a U.S. address.