Bridge collapse could mean increased Canadian tourism in Whatcom County

While the Skagit River bridge collapse on Interstate 5 will mean plenty of headaches and adjustments in the coming months, Whatcom County may see one silver lining more tourists from Canada.

The collapse of the bridge on Thursday, May 23, came right before the kickoff of the traditional tourism season. With the Canadian dollar remaining strong, it was expected that many British Columbia residents would venture into the U.S. for vacations and day-trips.

The closure of the bridge may change some travel habits, however, with some residents choosing to venture into Whatcom County and not farther south to Seattle, said Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

"I think we're going to see some positive and negative impacts," said Rahm, noting that Whatcom County may capture some of that Canadian business from people who go to the local shopping malls rather than make the trip to Seattle. But the bridge closure may mean fewer people visiting Whatcom County from the Seattle area.

The reaction of Canadians to the bridge collapse and potential traffic delays could be significant to the local tourism industry. Recent surveys have shown about 50 percent of passenger trips going south through the four Whatcom County border crossings (excluding the Point Roberts crossing) intend to travel south of the collapsed bridge, said Don Alper, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University.

"I think it could be a case where Bellingham benefits in an odd way if Canadians decide to do more shopping and recreating in this area," he said.

In terms of tourism, the first challenge Rahm had to tackle soon after the bridge collapse was inquiries from bus tour companies. The phone calls began at 4 a.m. for Rahm, who spent much of the morning explaining route alternatives.

"My first concern was making sure it's clear to our international travelers who aren't familiar with the area," Rahm said.

The next step they've taken is printing out maps with the alternative travel routes; those are being distributed at the local visitor stands, she said. After that, further steps may be taken if the alternative routes remain confusing to travelers.

"At this point I think convenience is the biggest factor, with a delay of 15 to 20 minutes being the best case," Rahm said.