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Travel through U.S. border ports at yearslong ebb

Two lines of semi trucks wait to clear customs at the U.S. Border crossing at Pembina, ND, this week. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS—The loonie isn't stretching its wings quite like it used to.

At least, that's part of the story told by statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and backed up by observers in Grand Forks who say border crossings from Canada have ebbed over recent years as a weak Canadian dollar—known by many in the north as the loonie—has kept Manitoban visitors home.

Chris Misson, assistant area port director for the CBP, has been working on the border for the past two decades. Though he says there are other factors that influence the flow of traffic from Canada into Minnesota and North Dakota, he points to the relative strength of the currency as a strongly correlating variable.

"When the Canadian dollar is strong, car traffic seems to be up—and when it gets fairly weak, car traffic goes the same," Misson said. "Whatever year the dollar started to decline, the traffic started to decline."

The reduction in Canadian visitors, who come to the U.S. border states for recreation, shopping and business, is felt in local economies that have welcomed spending from their northern neighbors. And last fall, CBP proposed reducing hours at two of its Minnesota ports, at Lancaster and Roseau, citing lagging rates of traffic.

Despite the weakening of the loonie, commercial traffic into the U.S. held relatively steady over the four-year period between the start of fiscal year 2014 and the end of 2017.

The port in Pembina, N.D., sees the most truck traffic of all the U.S. ports of entry in the two-state region and logged a total of almost 214,220 vehicles through the most recently completed fiscal year. That's down about 14,700 from the total counted in fiscal year 2014.

The largest declines are in the number of passenger vehicles that move across the border, a statistic that might reflect the more price-conscious mindset of recreational travelers. Those drivers seem to most often enter the U.S. by way of the port in International Falls, Minn.

That port ended 2014 with more than 520,000 passenger cars making the crossing. It closed out the last full fiscal year with just about 413,500, making for a 20 percent decline over the four-year period.

Crossings in Pembina, the second-biggest port for automobiles, saw a decrease in volume of almost 25 percent over that same period, hitting just under 277,250 cars for fiscal year 2017. Traffic through Grand Portage, Minn., the third-largest port, shrank by 24 percent in that time to land at just over 235,000 vehicles.

The close ties between economic trends and cross-border travel isn't a new phenomenon, Misson says, and has been something he's noted throughout his career.

The Canadian dollar can be exchanged now for about 77 cents American. It got up above 80 cents in January but hasn't been at par with U.S. currency since 2013, which is about when traffic started falling off at ports of entry.

The reduced flow of visitors has trickled down Interstate 29 to Grand Forks, which courts both recreational and business interests from Manitoba. The province has been targeted both by local ads and, thanks in part to the strong U.S. dollar, by a statewide push to brand North Dakota as a tourist destination.

Julie Rygg is executive director of the Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, which draws funding from local hospitality taxes. As such, she has a finger well on the pulse of the local tourism scene, which has long benefitted from Canadian residents on weekend getaways.

Rygg says 2015 seems to be the year when metrics like occupancy rates started levelling off in Grand Forks, followed by a steady decline the year after.

She thinks the exchange rate has a lot to do with that.

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the local Chamber, also points to the loonie when talking about Canadian travel, adding that he believes that 80 cents to the dollar is the price point to watch.

"Whenever it gets below that mark, it has an impact on people coming down," he said. "I'd rather see it at 90 cents, or even at par."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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