BOISSEVAIN — The number of travellers processed by the Canada Border Services Agency at Boissevain in January dropped by about half compared to the same time last year.
According to statistics provided to the Sun, just 7,600 travellers and 4,900 vehicles passed through the Boissevain port in the first month of the year compared to 15,950 people and 8,400 vehicles in January 2013.
While the Canadian dollar is in a midst of a skid — sitting at 90 cents US — western Manitoba residents are probably more hindered by the wickedly cold weather and poor driving conditions this winter has brought.
CBSA spokesperson Sean Best couldn’t speculate as to why the numbers have dipped so low this year, but said in an email, "it could be a number of factors such as weather, the currency exchange, the economic context or other ongoing cross-border events."
"The weather has got such a huge effect this year, I believe," said Bill Dougall, president of the Boissevain and District Chamber of Commerce.
Dougall said the cold weather may be hampering a desire to shop stateside, but that doesn’t necessarily mean good news for businesses on the Canadian side. He added he thinks shoppers in his border town area may not be shopping as much in Brandon right now either.
"People are trying to ride out this severe and lengthy cold snap that we’ve been experiencing and I know people are just not doing as much travelling around the area," Dougall said.
"There is more local shopping happening right now, but it’s not a spike in business from last year."
On Saturday, the border crossing leading into Dunseith, N.D., was quiet, with vehicles few and far between tricking through in the afternoon.
But a winter deep freeze has had little effect on online shopping and the proof lies just a few kilometres across the border.
North Dakota husband and wife Jay and Lola Vanorny have built a booming business by receiving packages for Canadians looking to avoid cross-border shipping costs.
Border Depot Shipping Services, well-known in the area largely by word of mouth, has been in business for nearly 20 years within a plain and unassuming white building on the desolate American highway leading into Dunseith.
Inside the warehouse — which doubled in size this past fall — thousands of boxes from eBay, Amazon, FedEx, UPS and the United States Postal Service were stacked beside bigger items, such as TVs, golf carts and tires.
Many U.S.-based retailers will offer free shipping stateside, but charge huge fees if haulers have to cross the border. The Vanornys have been offering western Manitoba a solution.
"A lot of the companies, they don’t want nothing to do with that paperwork at the border, boy I’ll tell ya," Jay said, while sitting casually at a desk at the front of the dimly-lit warehouse on Saturday with his wife.
What started as the odd favour back in the mid-1990s exploded into a full-on import/exporting business and the two rural North Dakotans now handle about 100 packages a day and about one vehicle per week, including motorcycles, boats, ATVs and cars. In the days leading up to Christmas, Lola said they deal with about 7,000 packages between Black Friday and Christmas Day.
"It’s just ballooned," said Lola, a recently-retired social service worker.
Handling packages for Canadians as far away as Flin Flon, the mom-and-pop shop has never changed its fees in 20 years — $5 per box and $3 for each additional box. Packages weighing more than 50 pounds cost $10.
Bringing in a car or a boat? $20 plus a $5-per-day storage fee — and they don’t worry themselves with exchange rates, but rather take Canadian money at par.
Like everyone else, this is also their slowest time of year, but they are patiently waiting on an influx of the usual spring buys like golf clubs, baseball gear and pool equipment.
Chuck Roeder of Carberry estimates he saved between $400 and $500 on camera equipment he bought online and had shipped to Jay and Lola.
"We’re fortunate because we’re here and we’re in proximity to this place and we can do this," he said at the border after paying the PST and GST on his online purchases.
Roeder said a pilgrimage to Fargo or other places in the U.S. annual trip for his family and the below-par loonie isn’t likely to change that.
"Anything above 90 cents, it’s still worthwhile to scoot across the border," he said.
Meanwhile, Minot, the closest American shopping destination for Westman residents, has ramped up its marketing in Canada to help counter the post-Christmas, dead-of-winter lull its tourism industry feels this time of year.
Nearly half of the small city’s tourism marketing cash (about $250,000) goes directly to Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The number of hotel rooms in Minot has just about doubled in the last three years to 3,000, which is driving down room rates. As well, a few new restaurants are also aimed at drawing bigger shopping crowds, according to the city’s tourism office.