Closed signs glow red at the USA/Canadian border

Canada is reopening its border. Here’s what travelers need to know.

From COVID restrictions to new experiences, these tips will help U.S. travelers plan trips, beginning August 9.

Soon, U.S. citizens won’t see closed signs at the Canadian border. But vaccinated travelers will face COVID protocols throughout the country.
Photograph by Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press/AP

After more than 15 months of being locked out of Canada, international travelers can finally start plotting their return. As of August 9, fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents can enter the country for leisure via land crossings and nine airports. (Other international travelers will have to wait until September 7.)

It’s a welcome, if one-sided, end to a lengthy separation between two countries that share the world’s longest international border.

But while Canada is reopening to travelers, don’t expect an immediate return to the ease of pre-pandemic trips across the border. COVID-19 rules will determine who can visit, how soon, and what steps are required.

While returning travelers may find a country that feels familiar, it likely won’t take long to realize that existential changes are underway. Pandemic lockdowns have shuttered some tourism offerings for good, and global conversations on race didn’t skip Canada, an oft-lauded multicultural haven that was forced to reckon with its own racist history.

What are the COVID rules?

As of July 10, about 78.6 percent of Canadians aged 12 and over had received at least one dose of vaccine, and 50 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated. (Children under 12 have not been approved for the vaccine.)

Americans who have received a full course of vaccinations that are approved for use in Canada will not be required to carry out a 14-day quarantine. (Kids 12 and under who are visiting will also be exempt from quarantine requirements but are being advised to avoid group settings.)

They will, however, be required to use the recently unveiled ArriveCAN app or web portal, which requires travelers entering by air or land to submit information related to proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test, 72 hours prior to arrival.

Although there is no mandatory COVID-19 test required on arrival, a new border testing surveillance program will randomly select travelers who will have to take a Day 1 COVID-19 molecular test, also known as a PCR test. They are also expected to have a quarantine plan, in case they test positive on arrival.

(The future of air travel is going high-tech, thanks to coronavirus.)

Visitors—vaccinated or not—will be expected to follow the same rules to which Canadians currently adhere, including, in many places, wearing masks. Travelers will also want to look up each province’s varied reopening plans before heading over. For example, Ontario only recently opened indoor dining, while Alberta has already hosted the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day annual rodeo and festival that normally draws over a million people.

Why U.S. travelers are important to Canada

With this week’s news, Canadian tourism businesses are celebrating. Canadians have increasingly taken to exploring their own country without the millions of international tourists who usually fill places like Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy, Toronto’s entertainment district, Banff’s Hot Springs, and Vancouver’s cruise terminal. But local tourism has been no match for the billions of dollars Americans once brought.

The Canadian tourism industry added $35 billion USD ($43.7 billion Canadian) to Canada’s GDP in 2019—as much as the GDP from agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting combined. In 2019, U.S. visitors spent $9.09 billion on day trips and overnight visits in Canada. (In comparison, tourists from other countries spent a combined $9.61 billion.)

When Americans stopped coming, that revenue evaporated; the tourism sector remains one of the hardest-hit industries in the country.

Small businesses were decimated. According to Destination Canada, the country’s tourism arm, one in 10 Canadian jobs is tied to tourism, and small and medium-size enterprises make up 99 percent of the 232,000 tourism businesses in Canada. Because many of them employed family members, the drop in tourists put entire families’ livelihoods in jeopardy.

“U.S. travelers have always been important to Canada,” says Marsha Walden, president and CEO of Destination Canada. “We believe the U.S. will be our first international market to return, particularly the drive market, and we are seeing travel confidence surging in the U.S., [with] 77 percent of people saying they are ready to travel now.”

(Among the things travelers have been missing during pandemic? Views outside an airplane window.)

Cultural experiences in the spotlight

When they return, Americans will find a country that still has the power to deliver transformative experiences even with protocols in place. They’ll also find a country that has had its own moments of reckoning during a lockdown that has left plenty of time to look inward.

While George Floyd’s murder occurred on American soil, the reverberations of that moment hit Canada, too. Ontario Black History Society president Natasha Henry says that longstanding Black history sites—including the Amherstburg Freedom Museum near the Detroit border, the John Ware Cabin in Dinosaur Provincial Park, and the Africville Museum in Nova Scotia—have received more of a well-deserved spotlight.

“It’s tourism, but it is also very much part of an important government response to the conversations that the public has been having over the past year around systemic racism, police brutality, and anti-Black racism,” she says. “These sites play an important role in education and in preserving Black history.” Now, she says, she’d like to see that support turn into “increased and sustained” government funding.

Keith Henry (no relation to Natasha) is the president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. He sees a similar need when it comes to the more than 700 unique First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across the country.

In May, the discovery of unmarked graves with the bodies of more than 350 Indigenous children forced from their homes into government-sanctioned, residential schools between 1870 and 1996 has galvanized public attention on the historic and modern-day atrocities suffered by Canada’s First Peoples. That number has since risen to more than a thousand, and the search continues across the country. Tourists who seek to understand can make a difference, Henry says.

“More light is being shed on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada,” says Henry, noting that tourists can now easily find and book Indigenous experiences online. “We don’t want to shy away from those stories. We want people to understand that this did happen. The beauty of this is that Indigenous peoples are rebuilding and reclaiming their culture, and Indigenous tourism is one of the strongest expressions of how we are doing that.”

(Learn about the legacy of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children.)

Private financial support includes grants that help tourism businesses—such as North Star Adventures in Yellowknife; Indigenous Experiences in Ontario and Quebec; and Moccasin Trails in British Columbia—continue to thrive in tough times.

Recent anti-Asian and anti-Muslim attacks have further shattered the image of Canada as a beacon of racial equality. As in the U.S., the pandemic has offered an opportunity for introspection, resolution, and revolution as Canadians began to explore their own country and rediscover neglected or overlooked communities.

What’s new

Canada’s wild spaces have thrived amid a break from heavy foot traffic; locals, when freed from lockdown, found themselves savoring the bucket-list destinations that had always been on their doorstep. Birding has seen an upswing, as has an interest in cycling and hiking.

When Canada opens its doors, travelers will be able to enjoy improvement projects, such as the soon-to-be-completed extension of the Fundy Trail in New Brunswick, one of the last remaining coastal wilderness areas between Florida and Labrador and part of two UNESCO-designated sites.

(Why Canada’s pristine Torngat Mountains National Park is a ‘place of spirits.’)

It’s part of what Destination Canada’s Walden refers to as “regenerative tourism,” experiences that not only enrich the lives of visitors but also enhance the quality of life of Canadians.

That can include spots like Indigenous-owned and -operated Point Grondine park, and new or newly renovated resorts that celebrate this spirit, such as Nimmo Bay Resort and the Klahoose Wilderness Resort. At the historic Nepisiguit Mi’qmaq Trail, a centuries-old First Nations portage route will now offer 87 miles (140 kilometers) of single-track hiking, as well as tepee and tent site accommodations.

(These Indigenous women are reshaping Canada’s tourism industry.)

The tourism respite has also unleashed Canadian creativity. Atlantic Ballet CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin turned her yard overlooking the Northumberland Strait in New Brunswick into a dance performance space. As a result, guests at “bubble” tables (the nickname used to describe government-sanctioned, small-group gatherings during the pandemic) can enjoy performances of Ballet by the Ocean.

In March, the Winnipeg Art Gallery unveiled Qaumajug, an innovative new museum dedicated to Inuit art and culture. And Niagara Falls’s newest attraction is one of its oldest: a reimagining of the Niagara Parks Power Station, which once led the way in distributing electricity across the province. As a tourism attraction, it offers interactive 3D experiences in the evening and insights into the history of both the people who were instrumental in building the plant (including Nikola Tesla) and the Indigenous communities whose ways of life it displaced.

Foodies can indulge in a new spice trail in Surrey, British Columbia, that highlights South Asian cuisine through more than 30 restaurants, cafés, and retail stores.

Bison have been re-introduced to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a gathering place of Indigenous peoples for more than six centuries, as part of a key conservation effort and a multi-million-dollar revitalization.

New, year-round glamping accommodations await at Nature Space Eco Resort in Prince Edward Island. In the Yukon, small-cabin, deep-nature getaways are now available at the new Black Spruce Hotel.

Taken together, these are the kinds of developments that Walden thinks will inspire travelers to return. “Travelers today want more than an experience,” she says. “They want to be transformed.”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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