Canadian 'snowbirds' flock across reopened US border

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Heading in droves across the reopened US border on Monday, excited Canadian retirees known as "snowbirds" fled the cold northern winter on their annual migration to Florida and other balmy climates.

Lines at several Canada-US crossings stretched for kilometres (miles) as the United States ended 20 months of pandemic travel restrictions to allow in visitors vaccinated against Covid-19.

At the Thousand Islands Bridge connecting Ontario province to the US state of New York, vehicles inched toward a border checkpoint as the rising sun dissipated a thick fog over the Saint Lawrence River below.

Daniel Francoeur and his wife waited almost seven hours to cross after leaving their Ottawa area home at 1:30 am, they told AFP.

"We have butterflies," he said from the driver's side window, his wife in the passenger seat gripping their passports and vaccine records, describing the sense of excitement building over driving down to their Florida vacation condo.

"We should have waited until next week," he said, visibly frustrated by the long wait. "But it's been two years since we went to Florida and we didn't want to wait another day."

Border agent Scott Carl looked over his shoulder at a long stretch of cars and trucks behind him as he directed vehicles to customs kiosks.

"We've been backed up in traffic since 11:30 pm (Sunday)," he told AFP.

Most of those eager to cross into the United States are so-called "Snowbirds."

"This (highway) goes right down to Florida. So it's pretty busy!" he explained.

Others are looking to reconnect with friends or family, or go shopping in border towns.

By midday, expected wait times at checkpoints all along the world's longest international border had fallen to less than two hours for most southbound traffic, while there were few delays reported for Americans driving north, according to Canada and US customs websites.

- 'Prefer warm weather' -

Canada and the United States had closed their shared 8,890-kilometres (5,520-miles) border to all non-essential travel in March 2020 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Canada reopened to vaccinated foreign travellers on September 7 of this year, but still requires all arrivals, including returning Canadians, to show a negative Covid test at entry points.

For an estimated 900,000 Canadians who typically spend winters in warmer southern US states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and Southern Carolina, overland access to the United States was eagerly awaited.

Most spend at least one month in the United States between October and January each year, according to Johanne Blain of the Canadian Snowbird Association.

Some own vacation homes there, others rent or bring their own in the form of recreational vehicles (RVs).

"It's a big sigh of relief" for them to be allowed to travel south once again, Blain told AFP. They are, she added, "very happy to be able to reconnect" in person with their American neighbours.

"I was so excited to go to Florida that I forgot to pack shorts and a T-shirt," Carole Berube-Doyon said with a burst of laughter after a 700-kilometres (430 miles) drive with her husband Bernard to the border from northern Quebec.

They have another 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) to go to reach their destination -- a trip they've made each winter for the past 17 years, except during the pandemic.

"When I was younger I was a big snowmobile enthusiast, but as I've gotten older I prefer warm weather," said Bernard.


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