Why are Canadians crossing the border? Fewer of them are shopping at Whatcom stores

Crossing the U.S.-Canada border? Here’s what you need to know

Whatcom County has 5 border crossings into Canada, including one of the busiest in the U.S. If you're traveling to British Columbia, here's what you need to know.
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Whatcom County has 5 border crossings into Canada, including one of the busiest in the U.S. If you're traveling to British Columbia, here's what you need to know.

When it comes to visiting the United States through Whatcom County, Canadians are more about vacationing and picking up mail and less about shopping compared to five years ago.

That’s one of several findings from a new report by the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. The report is based on a 2018 survey done by Western students every five years, collecting data at the border from travelers about where they are going and the purpose of the trip.

When asked about the main purpose of their trip into the U.S., 23 percent of respondents said they were shopping. That’s down from 37 percent in 2013, according to the report. The number of respondents who said vacation or family visit totaled 24 percent in 2018, up from 16 percent in 2013.

One of the big changes between 2018 and 2013 that impacted this survey is the strength of the Canadian dollar. In 2013 the Canadian currency was about equal in strength to the U.S. dollar; in 2018 the loonie was worth about 75 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. That has led to an overall decline in southbound border crossings in the past five years.

One growing trend noted in the survey is online shopping and mail pick up, said Laurie Trautman, director at the institute. The report found that 11 percent of the travelers surveyed said the primary reason for crossing the border was to pick up mail in the U.S. That’s up from 5 percent in 2013.

Picking up packages in the U.S. has risen in popularity among Canadians, who can save money on shipping fees. Trautman said she expects the online shipping trend to continue at the border unless shipping rates in Canada start to decline.

The growth of online shopping coincides with an increase in short trips across the border. According to the survey, 42 percent of Canadians only traveled to the border communities of Blaine, Sumas and Lynden.

The survey also looked at where Americans were going when they crossed the border northbound and found a different trend.

“Canadians are primarily taking short cross-border trips, more frequently to locations nearby, while Americans are traveling farther and making fewer cross-border trips, yet staying longer,” the report stated.

The local visitor centers are seeing fewer Canadians inquiring about shopping options and more looking into vacation activities, said Annette Bagley, director of marketing at Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. There are many Canadians who own vacation properties in Whatcom County and they are looking for fresh new things to do, she said.

Bagley added in an email that Whatcom County businesses, especially hotels, are actively marketing to Canadian travelers.

One category that has remained stable in the past five years is gas trips. The survey found 18 percent of respondents were crossing the border to fill up on gas last year, up from 17 percent in 2013.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.