Duty-free stores say they need help to survive

·3 min read
Many of the 33 Duty Free Stores along the U.S.-Canada border have been closed since the pandemic began.  (Stefan Ataman/Shutterstock - image credit)
Many of the 33 Duty Free Stores along the U.S.-Canada border have been closed since the pandemic began. (Stefan Ataman/Shutterstock - image credit)

Duty free shops along Canada's border with the U.S. say they have fallen through the cracks when it comes to getting government help throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the 33 stores across the country have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic and don't qualify for government relief programs such as the rent subsidy top-up.

John Slipp's Woodstock Duty Free Store near the border between New Brunswick and Maine has been closed since March 2020.

He's laid off his staff and has had to destroy some of his inventory since then. He said stores such as his have been overlooked.

"When I meet people I know in the community and who I haven't seen in months, every time they say to me, 'Oh, my God, I never thought about you and your business. That must be horrible.'"

Although a border reopening announcement is expected in the coming weeks, the Frontier Duty Free Association, which represents duty free stores, said these businesses need help now.

The association is asking the federal government for $6.6 million out of the $500 million in the tourism relief fund. That would mean $200,000 for each store.

It would go a long way to helping stores that have largely been shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic, said Philippe Bachand, an association board member and store owner in Philipsburg, Que. Banchand has managed to keep his store operating.

"We're servicing a little bit of truckers, essential travellers," he said. "We're doing two per cent of our regular business. We need to survive, so it will just pay regular bills and some salaries. That's it."

And even when the border reopens, Slipp isn't confident that pre-COVID numbers of people will be crossing,

Stefan Ataman/Shutterstock
Stefan Ataman/Shutterstock

"The extra support from the federal government would help us get on our feet while that traffic comes about to life," he said. "And it may take a year … I think that next summer traffic will be crazy, but I'm not expecting it to be crazy in the first few months."

The association also wants stores to have an export designation, so that products heading out of the country aren't subject to domestic regulations.

"Being released from these policies will allow us to get inventory faster, get more inventory, so it'll allow us to get on our feet faster and allow us to recover faster," says Barbara Barrett, executive director of the Frontier Duty Free Association.

Barrett said the regulations the stores operate under have made it difficult to adjust during the pandemic. And duty-free shops didn't have the option of pivoting to curbside or takeout models to keep themselves going.

Tourism at the federal level falls under Melanie Joly, the minister of economic development and official languages.

In an email, a spokesperson for her office said the tourism relief fund will be administered by regional development agencies such as ACOA in the Atlantic region, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Details have yet to be announced.

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