NOTO head critical of Customs here

You say po-tay-toe and others say po-tah-toe, but Canada Custom officials in Rainy River District say, “Turn back and throw them into the dumpster.”
And that’s one of the reasons why tourism is down—and staying down, charged Doug Reynolds, executive director for the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters (NOTO).
He’s critical of the conduct at the border crossings in this area and expressed those concerns during a sit-down interview after the North Western Ontario Tourism Association’s annual fall meeting wrapped up last Friday afternoon at the Fort Frances Curling Club.
One of those concerns lies in something has bizarre as potatoes.
“You want to know something? Those three border crossings [Fort Frances, Rainy River, and Pigeon River] are the only border crossings that are turning back potatoes,” Reynolds said.
That is true, but that’s been going on for the past two years, said Kevin Begin, recently appointed as a superintendent at the Fort Frances port of entry.
You see, specific kinds of potatoes are not allowed to pass into Canada. But because of the time it would take to inspect every bag, it was decided by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s regional director out of Thunder Bay to implement “a blanket ban” to turn back all potatoes.
“We would stall the Customs process if we had to send everybody out to verify where the potatoes were from and where they were purchased,” said Begin, who noted there are websites to check and phone numbers to call for those wanting to know what they can bring across the border.
Reynolds had received calls from disgruntled travellers and made a phone call to the Fort Frances crossing, asking for the directive that states how all potatoes should be turned back.
But he did not get any directive sent to him.
“I went after it,” said Reynolds, who ended up, after a week of searching, finding that CFIA official. “And he did fax me the directive and I told him what was going on and he said, ‘Well, that’s not what the directive says.’
“To this day, they are still making people dump potatoes at the Fort Frances border crossing. They still have got it wrong.
“And when I challenge them on it, they say, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but we don’t have time to check on that so we’re just going to stop all the potatoes from getting in,’” Reynolds added.
“He [Reynolds] made this particular statement in the meeting last Wednesday [in Kenora for the Kenora District Camp Owners’ Association’s meeting] and I just said, ‘Do you have something formally that says it’s wrong?’ and he couldn’t produce one.”
Denying potatoes isn’t the only reason why there were 983,000 less U.S. border crossing into Ontario between January and July of this year, as compared to the same time period last year, but it is one of many reasons.
Around $66 million is earmarked by the federal government for the promotion of tourism, “but if you’re going to hire people at the border to scare tourists away, then they might as well set fire to that basket of money,” Reynolds argued.
Out of all the phone calls Reynolds gets from visitors wanting to air out their displeasures on how they were treated at border crossings, he said “90 percent of those complaints are from the Rainy River crossings.”
There is a “perception” the border crossings in the area are “unfriendly and rude.” And even if those comments are unfounded, it doesn’t matter because “perception becomes reality” and “one bad experience and the story told from it will counteract 1,000 good experiences.”
But Reynolds believes those perceptions are true to an extent.
“Are these people unusually evil or incompetent? I would say no, but I would say they are not as well-trained as some of their counterparts in larger centres,” he said.
But Begin, who has been a customs officer for 16 years, shot back by saying the inspectors at the Fort Frances port of entry “are trained in the same extent in all aspects of the job as any inspector right across the country.”
“I spoke with Doug during my speech at the meeting [in Kenora] and I addressed some of these same issues specifically with him,” said Begin.
“And I told Doug that if he had any type of evidence of a particular inspector and give me some solid information about particular incidents, then I can investigate it,” added Begin, who has yet to receive any evidence.
Reynolds is not suggesting the customs officers let everybody with everything pass, but he doesn’t believe that being friendly can inhibit someone from doing there job.
“I want them to do their job, and I don’t want bad guys coming up here, but I want it done politely and I want it done in a way that doesn’t disrespect the people that are being dealt with,” he argued.
“You can say ‘no’ politely.
“In my view, we need to do some very proactive and aggressive customer service training for those front-line staff,” he added.
So why are the Rainy River border crossings receiving the bulk of the complaints?
“The bottom line problem is these people live and work in this community and they, unfortunately, reflect an attitude that is far too prevalent in the community at large,” said Reynolds.
“And that attitude is—‘Tourism is not important to our community, it does not bring benefits. These tourists just come and shoot our deer and eat our fish and crowd our highways, and I want them to go away.’
“And it’s not just an America vs. Canada thing,” Reynolds added. “A Toronto tourist is treated just as badly.”
It’s obvious the local port of entry, or any other one, will have locals employed at it, said Begin.
“I would say that it’s a fact of life that some of the people that are employed here also live here,” he remarked. “Myself personally, I’m a sportsman, and I have been my whole life and I bear no ill will to those that are making a living.
“And I don’t dislike anyone that abides by the rules,” he added. “As long as you’re not breaking any rules, you can come and go.”
A regional tourism profile survey done by the Ministry of Tourism and Recreation back in 2003, which is the most recent survey of its kind for the area, said close to $119 million was spent by visitors to Rainy River District that year.
The total number of visitors to the area in 2003 was 895,856 (there were 926,299 visitors in 1998).
And though the number of crossings was unknown for 2004, it is almost certain the number of visitors—and the amount of money spent—is down when you take into account that numbers are down eight percent this year from last year.
And when you look at the 12 percent increase of U.S. travel to overseas locations from May to July of this year as compared to last year, as seen by a survey done by Ontario Tourism, that spells trouble for Northwestern Ontario.
But it would be unfair to blame Customs for the drop in tourism rates, said Begin.
“There’s no question that tourism is down, but I just feel Customs is getting to be a scapegoat for a lot of the problems the industry is facing right now and I personally think it’s a little unfair,” he remarked.
“I’d be a fool to try and stop tourists because I know the effect [they have] on our community and the other communities in the area, and I feel bad the numbers are down.
“But as a supervisor, I’ve got to defend what we’re doing here.”
Can we stop this downward spiral, or are we at the point of no return?
“I don’t think we’ve reached the point of no return, but because those perceptions have been put so front and centre, I think we’re in a very bad position in Minnesota,” Reynolds said.
“But as we get farther from the border, it’s less well-known and I think there is time to reverse it in other places,” he added.
That means going after places like California, Texas, or New England. And with the product Northwestern Ontario has to offer, it shouldn’t be a problem attracting people to the area.
“This area is, quite frankly, the centre of the universe when it comes to outdoor recreation, so we’ve got some huge advantages, but we’ve also got some huge challenges,” Reynolds said.
The primary disadvantage is transportation.
“We have a lousy—and getting lousier—transportation infrastructure,” noted Reynolds, who lives in North Bay. He had to fly to Winnipeg and then rent a car to come to Fort Frances, “and that was the easiest way to get here.”
And there are other factors that could see the tourism figures get worst before they get better.
The price of gas is high, the Canadian dollar is getting stronger, and the issue of people having to have passports to enter the U.S. a few years down the road isn’t going to help, either.
There still is hope, said Reynolds, but there has to be an awareness of how important tourism is to Northwestern Ontario.
“We have a forestry industry that is under severe stress for a lot of reasons out of their control, so if we can’t fix that problem, why not fix the ones we can,” he argued.
“This isn’t about forestry vs. tourism, but at a time when one of our key industries is under stress, let’s do everything we can to help the other industry that is under less stress grow,” he reasoned.
“We can’t make forestry grow right now and we hope it gets better. And we have room to make tourism grow, but we’re making it shrink,” Reynolds said.