What it’s like to be the first British tourist to cross the Canada-US border in 20 months

Simon Calder walked across the Rainbow Bridge that connects Ontario in Canada with New York State

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 08 November 2021 21:46
Simon Calder crosses US border after 18 month travel ban lifted for UK tourists

In the tourist town Niagara Falls, Canada, a traffic jam shortly before midnight on a Sunday is unprecedented. A line of cars, all registered in the Canadian state of Ontario and piled high with baggage, stretches back from the entrance Rainbow Bridge.

“We’re hoping to beat the traffic,” said Ed from Paris, Ontario.

“We’re heading for Florida. It’s a little warmer than it is here.”

Normally, Canada’s snowbirds would start heading south to Florida earlier in the autumn. But since March 2020, the border has been open only for essential travel.

Simultaneously with Joe Biden’s administration tearing up the travel ban on Europeans, America’s land frontiers with Canada and Mexico are also reopening for non-essential travel.

The link across the Niagara River between the US and Canada comprises one of the most spectacular international border crossings in the world.

No one could begrudge the dollar fee to open the barrier which comprises Canada’s entire check-out formality for the sight – and sound – of gravity dragging 3,000 tons of water per second over the brink of a geological calamity.

But few have enjoyed the views since March 2020, when President Trump closed the nation’s land frontiers for anything that could be termed leisure travel.

“Essential travel ONLY” warned a sign on the Canadian side that would, in a few minutes, become redundant.

For Aruja Khan, a student living in Toronto, the 600-day closure meant separation from her family in the town of Lewiston in New York State – even though they were across Lake Ontario, just 50 miles from Canada’s largest city.

“Lewiston is so close you would go every weekend,” she says as she hauls a case across the bridge.

“I’m very excited to be going back. You miss them.”

As engines grumble from the queue of cars, Ms Khan and I reach the US Customs & Border Protection checkpoint – or at least the ante-room.

An officer yelled through a gate: “Are you here for pleasure?”

Affirmative. “Wait there, please.”

At 12.01am precisely, another officer called out “OK, let’s roll” – and buzzed us through the gate.

As the first non-essential British visitor for almost 20 months, I appeared to have a passport of interest – and a rather alien-looking proof of vaccination in the shape of an NHS Covid Pass letter.

While Aruja Khan was happily fast-tracked through to meet her waiting family, I was told to wait in a room whose lack of charm was accentuated by the fluorescent glare beloved of border posts worldwide.

Eventually I was summoned back, asked for $6 for the border fee and sent out into New York State – and the maskless American city of Niagara Falls, where vaccinated folk can carry on as though Covid had never happened.

America is another country. They do things differently here.

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