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Study: WNYers avoiding border crossings out of "habit"

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Canada enjoys a stronger dollar than the U.S. Still, scrutiny, and new ID requirements at the border, have created an atmosphere that tacitly encourages "staycations."

Humans are creatures of habit - but when the conditions that prompted the habit change, so do behaviors.

That explains the significant drop in the number of border crossings at western New York's four international bridges, according to "The Niagara Border - 10 Years After 9/11," a new study by the Binational Economic and Tourism Alliance (BTA).

New security and ID requirements have bred an atmosphere of uncertainty, according to the study. It draws that conclusion from data gleaned from 400 interviews with Ontario and WNY locals.

The result? A crippled local tourism industry that's desperate for the situation to change.

Re-brand as a "binational region"

Crossing into Canada requires a passport, enhanced driver's license, or a smattering of other official documents that are perceived to be expensive - especially for an area that has one of the highest poverty levels in the United States.

The high cost and hassle of acquiring new IDs are the primary factor keeping folks home, according to the study.

"[People] get frustrated because they can't remember what they're supposed to do to get across," says Arlene White, executive director of the BTA. "And [they say], 'Oh well, I'm not going to go shopping after all'. Or 'I'm not going to go to a restaurant or that ball game'."

Some interviewed for the study saw little reason to spend money and effort to obtain these items, when it means landing in a long line for a security check at the border. But the BTA claims wait times at the border are shorter than commonly perceived, and can be further truncated by preparedness.

"We've really blown apart a lot of the myths. It's not difficult to cross the border," White argues. "But these days, you need to have identification. So how do we make sure people know how to get that identification, and that when they're traveling, they need to be ready?"

Recent advertising campaigns, leveraging the effects of the economic downturn, urge locals to stay home. That hasn't helped the border either.

"[Local] governments started promoting 'staycations'," White says. "And once you get out of a habit of doing something, it's really hard to get back to that. We can't afford to wait 10 or 20 years for people in this area to suddenly become aware of why they should look at this as a binational region.

Retraining people is tough, White says. So that's why, 10 years after September 11 brought on most of these border complications, the BTA's study is meant to get the ball rolling, to change the meaning of "Buffalo-Niagara," to include Ontario and Canada as well.

The hope is that a wider net will catch more fish - that is, tourists.

Changing behavior

Locals interviewed for the study say they'd be more willing to cross the border if passports or enhanced driver's licenses were free, or if malls just over the border offered special pricing for international travelers.

The study suggests increased efforts to draw an international audience to major sporting events. Buffalo's number one tourism-related draw remains the Buffalo Bills' seven NFL home games, and the 40-plus Buffalo Sabres hockey matches per year.

But the best antidote for fears about the border is a positive and easy crossing experience, according to the study.  And White says that can only happen one carload of tourists at a time.

Note: The study is not yet available online, but we'll link to it once it's posted.

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