Quick Take

March indicators confirm unprecedented pause in travel activity

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The Conference Board of Canada’s Senior Economist Robyn Gibbard offers the following insights on today's release of March travel volumes from Statistics Canada:

Today’s release of travel volumes data provides an early look at one of the sectors that has been hardest-hit by COVID shutdowns. Canada closed the border in mid-March, so we only have half a month of data reflecting the new reality. But even that small period confirms that international travel has, for the moment, almost completely ceased.

  • Tourism is a large portion of Canada’s economy, supporting $102 billion in economic activity and employing over 1.8 million Canadians.
  • The Government of Canada announced on March 16 that it was closing our international borders to inbound travel by anyone who is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. At the same time, Prime Minister Trudeau told Canadians still abroad that it was “time to come home.” Then, on March 21, Canada and the United States jointly restricted non-essential travel across the shared border. Today’s data release shows us what was happening to travel activity both before and after these measures.
  • In the first half of March, the number of U.S. residents entering Canada by car tracked almost exactly in line with 2019. However, starting on March 14 the number of travellers began to decline precipitously, showing that people were already changing their behaviour before governments officially restricted travel.
  • After non-essential travel across the U.S.-Canada border was restricted, arrivals from the U.S. flatlined at a very low level, reaching as low as 531 on Sunday, March 29. Typical volumes during a late-March weekend would be greater than 40,000.
  • International inbound air travel shows a somewhat different pattern. The number of arrivals was already falling below its 2019 levels at the beginning of March. On March 13, arrivals were roughly three-quarters of their usual numbers.
  • In the second half of March, international arrivals fell off a cliff. In the period after the government’s measures were implemented, international air arrivals to Canada fell by 95 per cent compared to 2019, reaching a low point of 189 on March 31. On the same day in 2019 there were 10,661 international air arrivals to Canada.
  • Both the US and international data also have information about Canadians returning to Canada. In the land crossing data, we see that the number of Canadians returning to Canada was tracking with 2019 until March 9, when it plateaued at approximately two-thirds of normal levels. Then, as the mandatory border restrictions took place, the number of returning Canadians declined steadily to a low of 5,745 on March 31. On the same date last year 110,335 Canadians returned home by automobile.
  • In the air travel data, we see that the number of Canadians returning from abroad tracked with 2019 up until the March 7-8 weekend. The following weekend, March 14-15, still saw a high volume of returning Canadians, although it was noticeably lower than the same weekend in 2019. Beginning the following week, the number of returning Canadians began to decline until reaching a low of 2,011 on March 31. On the same date last year 54,077 Canadians returned home by plane.

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Pedro Antunes

Robyn Gibbard

Senior Economist

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