Stricter travel document requirements in place since 2009 haven't meant endless waits for motorists along one of the busiest stretches of the U.S.-Canada border, as many had feared, but Americans are avoiding short trips to Canada anyway, a study released Friday found.
They seem to think there's no reason to go.
The study looked at how the passport rule and other changes at the border since the Sept. 11 terror attacks have affected the flow of business and tourists across the four bridges between the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area and Ontario. It was commissioned by a consortium led by The Binational Economic & Tourism Alliance.
The alliance had cautioned early on that the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, with its requirement that travelers show passports or an equivalent document beginning July 1, 2009, would keep travelers at home, unwilling to bother with expensive passports and traffic backups.
Already along the border, passenger vehicle crossings have been on the decline since 2002 because of things like the SARS virus scare, the economy and gasoline prices.
But the preliminary study results showed that even travelers who have the proper identification under WHTI aren't making as many day trips, and the perception they'll get stuck in long lines is only part of the problem. In reality, wait times at the four bridges are 10 minutes or less 90 percent of the time, the study showed.
"One of the biggest reasons people aren't crossing the border is because they don't have a reason," said Jason Burgess, vice president and director of Deloitte & Touche Corporate Finance Canada, which began the study last August.
Burgess said that many Canadian tourism hot-spots have stopped marketing to their nearest American neighbors, assuming they won't come anyway because of perceived hassles at the border.
"It became a self-fulfilling prophecy," Burgess said.
But the sentiment runs both ways, he said. Canadians, with their stronger dollar, are making more day trips to American malls and casinos, he said, but not to see other sites.
"For Canadians, the biggest issue for not crossing is lack of interest in tourism events," he said.
The study is meant to help businesses develop new products and marketing to attract visitors and investment, said Arlene White, executive director of the Binational Economic & Tourism Alliance.
"It was important for us to understand, was it WHTI that caused these problems or were there other contributing factors," she said, "and there were other contributing factors."
Overnight and other longer term travel in both directions remains steady, the study found, indicating that people are willing to get passports and risk traffic delays to go on vacation or visit relatives.
"We need to figure out how to invite the day-trippers. That's the audience we've lost," White said.
The Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, ranks second in passenger traffic among crossings along the 4,000-mile border. It's third in truck traffic.