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U.S. border towns still wait on buyers from B.C., as Vancouver shopping buses vanish

Removal of COVID-related restrictions boosted consumerism cross-border, but not back to pre-pandemic levels

Cross-border shopping buses filled with Chinese and Korean Canadian consumers were once ubiquitous outside Washington state malls, but they have all-but disappeared from the commercial landscape, dealing a heavy blow to border-town businesses.

The removal of COVID-19 restrictions at the border late last year has boosted the number of Canadians making land crossings to the United States, but consumers and tour operators say the pandemic may have altered people’s travel and purchasing behaviour, greatly diminishing demand for one-day shopping tours south of the border.

Malls and shops in Whatcom County directly south of Vancouver said while they are seeing more Canadians since last fall, the absence of the tour buses was particularly noticeable.

“We still see them maybe once in a while,” said David Prince, assistant property manager at the Bellis Fair mall in Bellingham, Wash., referring to the shopping buses. “But we used to get them sometimes lined up on a weekend, three or four buses out in the parking lot letting off hundreds of people. We want to get back to that again.”

Bus tour operators in Vancouver, however, said that may not be possible in the near term.

Vancouver area travel agencies targeting Chinese and Korean speakers used to conduct most of the shopping tours to malls including Bellis Fair and the Seattle Premium Outlets in Tulalip, Wash. But the agencies have almost none scheduled this summer.

Edward Xie, manager at First Express Travel in Richmond, B.C., said his company will still operate a few shopping tours this year, but longer itineraries such as three-day trips to Portland, Ore., have been removed entirely due to a lack of demand.

Xie said the US tours were once popular with travellers from China visiting Canada. They were attracted by some luxury consumer goods priced significantly lower than in China.

But such clients haven’t returned in pre-pandemic numbers, Xie said.

“There are not as many flights (from China) coming to Canada right now, and because of that, airfares may be too expensive for shopping tourists to get here,” he said.

Xie the tourists who do make it to Vancouver now prefer more traditional itineraries to popular destinations like the Rockies, with shopping included on the tour but not as the main element.

A representative for another Richmond tour agency, Super Vacation, said that most shopping bus customers out of Vancouver were from other countries, and the drop in visitors to Canada from China and elsewhere had diminished demand.

According to data from Destination British Columbia, there were 4,729 visitors to B.C. from China last November, down from 12,370 in November 2019.

The decline of shopping bus tours isn’t the only factor hampering recovery for border-town businesses.

U.S. Department of Transportation data show that while the number of personal vehicles entering the United States at the main B.C.-Washington crossing at Blaine, Wash., rebounded fourfold to 2.06 million in 2022 from the year before, that number is still only about half the 2019 figure of almost 4 million vehicles.

Long border waits, unfavourable exchange rates, inflation, and the rise of online shopping all contribute to Canadians doing less shopping south of the border.

Vancouver resident Jodi Jiang said her family used to go to Washington state to shop almost monthly, but a combination of pandemic border closures and cost pressures altered her shopping habits.

“The exchange rate has been consistently unfavourable, and the cost of living in Vancouver has risen so much that we are reducing unnecessary spending as much as we can,” Jiang said. “And with the pandemic closing the border for a time, we really don’t have the urge to cross just to shop.”

Vancouver resident Fiona Chiang, whose fiancé lives in Blaine, visited Seattle Premium Outlets during the May long weekend and said lineups in front of popular stores like Coach and Polo Ralph Lauren are gone, and the mall remains noticeably less crowded than before the pandemic.

Chiang said one reason she and her friends don’t visit as often is the lineups at the Blaine border crossing.

But another is the fact that many of the brands they seek are now available in Canadian outlet malls.

“Our choices here are quite comparable if you’re not super picky,” she said,

“If you look at the Richmond (B.C.) outlet, I actually think the brands offered are better than the Seattle outlet,” she said, referring to the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet mall near Vancouver’s airport.

Chiang also said people’s increasing comfort with online shopping means consumers can get products with U.S. pricing online, with packages mailed to places like Blaine for pickup without needing to venture to a brick-and-mortar store in Washington.

Bellingham Chamber of Commerce CEO Guy Occhiogrosso said he was aware business from Canadian consumers had not returned to 2019 levels, but he was confident that the ties between B.C. and Washington state would naturally see former spending habits return.

Occhiogrosso said they are keeping a close eye on the exchange rate, the ultimate deciding factor for many Canadian consumers.

A rate to 65 U.S. cents per Canadian dollar would significantly cut Canadian spending in Bellingham, but the current rate of around 75 U.S. cents was not swaying consumers too much, he said.

Occhiogrosso said that in lieu of shopping buses, he wanted to see Canadian consumers travelling independently to shop, dine and consume in a “well-rounded” manner, helping small outlets, instead of mostly spending at brand-name stores.

“There are a lot of opportunities to engage the small mom-and-pop shops,” Occhiogrosso said.

The first quarter is always a little tough for retail, he said.

“But now with the sunshine coming back out, we will traditionally see more and more Canadian travel.”

Prince, at Bellis Fair, said the mall had stepped up long weekend themed events, such as Easter egg hunts, to draw foot traffic back.

Bellis Fair, which changed ownership six months ago, currently has a floorspace occupancy rate of about 90 per cent. But that falls to 75 per cent when major anchor tenants are removed from the equation.

“You know we’d like to get that up into the 90-per-cent range,” he said of small business occupancy. “We’ve reached out to a lot of local businesses. Right now, we are in talks with an anime store, and one of the things I talk about with them is specifically, is there anything in your store that folks would have a hard time getting north of the border?”

“That’s one of the things the store owner is looking to do. It’s to make sure he will have stuff that would be difficult to come by up there, to try to draw those folks down here.”