North American Travel Trends

North American Travel Trends

The majority of U.S. international travel is with Canada and Mexico. It has been characterized by fluctuations during the 1990s, most recently since September 2001. In 2000, approximately 313 million visits, or roundtrips, were recorded between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada, an increase of 10 percent from 19907. Of this travel, U.S.-Mexico activity accounted for 72 percent (227 million trips) and U.S.-Canada travel represented 28 percent (86 million trips). Same-day trips accounted for four-fifths of all travel back and forth across the borders, with the remaining 20 percent involving an overnight stay. The vast majority of people cross the border in personal vehicles (tables 4 and 5). Other options for travel across the border are walking, flying, or taking a bus. Relatively few travelers use trains.

North American Same-Day Travel

Same-day excursions dominate travel between the United States and its two neighbors, accounting for about 87 percent of total travel between the United States and Mexico and about 66 percent of total travel between the United States and Canada.

About half of Canadian travelers cited pleasure as the most common reason for same-day travel to the United States in 2000. Another one-third traveled for shopping and other purposes. About 7 percent cited business as their main reason to travel, while another 11 percent visited friends and relatives (table 6). Same-day trip purpose shares for U.S. residents traveling to Canada are comparable, with a slightly higher proportion visiting friends and relatives and shopping; fewer traveled for pleasure and business (Statistics Canada 1998, 2000, Various years). Comparable data are not available for Mexico8.

Same-day travel between Canada and the United States declined dramatically between 1990 and 2000, dropping from 76 million visits to 57 million. Much of the decline is due to fewer Canadians coming to the United States, while the number of American visits to Canada has grown. The most pronounced decline is for pleasure and business trips, although all trip purposes have been affected. The drop in Canadian trips to the United States has partly been the result of unfavorable exchange rates for the Canadian dollar. For specific modes, same-day travel by personal vehicles from Canada to the United States shows the most decline, while same-day air travel by Americans increased over this period.

In contrast to the U.S.-Canada situation, same-day travel between the United States and Mexico increased markedly (by approximately 27 percent) from 1990 to 2000. Same-day travel in both directions increased at comparable rates. The rate at which same-day travel between the United States and Mexico grew was especially rapid toward the close of the decade.

The vast majority of North American same-day travelers cross the border in personal vehicles. Border-entry data show that 344 million land passenger crossings were made into the United States from Mexico and Canada in 2001-approximately 944,000 a day9. These data also show that the number of passenger and personal vehicle crossings into the United States has fluctuated since 1998 (table 7), with steep declines in the later months of 2001 (discussed in detail in the section on Border Issues).

On the U.S.-Mexican border, about 20 percent of those entering the United States from Mexico were on foot, while most of the rest crossed in personal vehicles. In 2001, approximately 245,000 personal vehicles crossed into the United States everyday from Mexico, with El Paso, Texas, and San Ysidro, California, each handling a large share, over 40,000 incoming personal vehicles a day (table 8).

Similar border-crossing data show that the number of people coming into the United States from Canada by land is about one-third of those entering from Mexico, about 80 million in 2001, or 220,000 a day on average. Most of these people enter in personal vehicles, approximately 94,000 vehicles a day. Detroit and Buffalo-Niagara handle about 20,000 vehicles a day each, half the amount of the most active crossing points on the Mexican border (figure 4).

North American Overnight Travel

Over half (53 percent) of international overnight travel involving the United States is to and from Canada and Mexico (table 2). In 2000, 51 million international overnight trips were made to the United States, with Canada and Mexico together accounting for just under half the trips (29 percent from Canada and another 20 percent from Mexico). Although appreciable, it is a drop from 1990 when North American trips accounted for 62 percent of all overnight visits to the United States. On the outbound side, U.S. residents made 61 million overnight trips in 2000 with Mexico their top destination (accounting for one-third of these trips), followed by Canada (accounting for one-quarter). Canada and Mexico have remained the top destinations for U.S. resident overnight travel for at least the past decade.

As with same-day travel, ground transportation, particularly the use of personal vehicles, is still the primary mode for North American overnight travel. About 64 percent of overnight visits between the United States and Canada were made by land modes (mainly personal vehicles) in 2000, down from 74 percent in 1990. As for overnight travel between the United States and Mexico in 2000, approximately 73 percent of these trips were made by land modes, down from around 80 percent in 1990.

Air is increasingly relied on for North American overnight travel. Table 5 (page 11) shows air travel's growing modal share of international North American trips from 1990 to 2000, with the exception of Mexican travel to the United States, where air's modal share remained relatively stable during this time period. During the 1990s, air trips grew from 22 percent to about 31 percent of overnight trips between the United States and Canada, and from 20 percent to 27 percent for such trips between the United States and Mexico between 1990 and 2000 (Statistics Canada Various years; Banco de México 1999 and 2001). Notably in 2000, the U.S.-Canada market was the world's second largest nonstop bilateral air passenger market behind the U.S.-United Kingdom, while the U.S.-Mexico market ranked third10 (figure 5). The top three North American international air passenger city pairs were Toronto-New York, Toronto-Chicago, and Los Angeles-Mexico City (USDOT BTS OAI 2001b).

Notwithstanding the relatively strong growth in North American overnight air travel during the 1990s, modest declines began to occur between January and August 2001. These downturns grew notably following September 11. Trips made between the United States and Canada and Mexico declined by 24 percent in September and 23 percent in October 2001, compared with the same months in 2000, with a greater decline seen in the U.S.-Mexican market than in the U.S.-Canadian market. Overnight trips by air between Canada and the United States declined by 21 percent and 22 percent in September and October 2001, respectively, compared with the same months in 2000 and compared with 33 percent and 27 percent decreases during the same months for U.S.-Mexico overnight air travel (USDOC ITA 2002a, 2002b, 2002c).

Overnight trip purposes for U.S.-Canada travel are generally similar to same-day travel, but with a higher share of business-related trips and lower shares for shopping and personal trips. In 2000, over 50 percent of Canadian overnight visits to the United States were for pleasure and tourism, almost 20 percent were for visits to friends and family, and nearly 19 percent were for business. Roughly similar ratios were seen for U.S. overnight travel to Canada (table 6). Comparable trip purpose data for Mexican overnight visits to the United States are unavailable.

Border Issues

Since September 11, 2001, security at U.S. borders has been heightened, focusing on threat deterrence and preventing would-be terrorists from gaining entry into the United States. Government agencies charged with protecting U.S. borders have also tightened their inspections and security procedures11. An anti-terrorism law, the USA Patriot Act (Public Law 107-56, sec. 401), signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, authorized a tripling of U.S. agents along the Canadian border. Border enforcement will also increase on the Mexican border. In addition, the Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (Public Law 107-173), signed into law on May 14, 2002, had several provisions dealing with enhanced border security, including increases in the number of immigration inspectors and investigators who will be deployed along both U.S. land borders and other ports of entry.

Heightened border security was accompanied by declines in entries from Canada and Mexico in the months immediately following September 11, followed by less severe declines in late 2001. Table 9 compares the number of personal vehicle crossings at the top 10 land ports for each border for August through December, in both 2000 and 2001. In September 2001, the number of personal vehicles entering the United States from Canada and Mexico was 20 percent less than in September 2000. The decline continued in October 2001 with a decrease of 24 percent over 2000 levels. However, in November and December 2001, the declines were 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively, compared with 2000. At some of the busiest ports, the decrease was even greater. For example, El Paso reported a reduction of about 25 percent in September 2001 and 30 percent in October 2001, when compared with 2000 figures for those same months. On the northern border, Detroit and Blaine, Washington, experienced even greater reductions. In September 2001, the number of personal vehicle crossings dropped 34 percent in Detroit and 39 percent in Blaine compared with September 2000. This slide continued in October 2001 with declines of 40 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

Figure 6 compares patterns in crossing volumes at the busiest northern and southern land ports during 2001. The data show a consistent and notable drop in personal vehicle border crossings starting in September, and this drop was more pronounced on the northern border where personal vehicles crossings at the top 10 ports were up just over 1 percent in August before dropping 26 percent in September and 33 percent in October (table 9). In comparison, the top 10 southern ports saw crossings increase 6 percent in August 2001 compared with August 2000.

Overall, personal vehicle crossings on the southern border dropped 19 percent in September 2001 and 22 percent in October 2001 when compared with the same months in 2000. In December 2001, however, the decline was less severe on the U.S.-Mexican border, about 9 percent, and on the U.S.-Canadian border the drop was 13 percent compared with December 2000. Even though the decline was less severe in December 2001 than in the previous three months of 2001, the annual 2001 entries for personal vehicles were down when compared with 2000 totals.


7 These data differ from the border-crossing numbers presented later in this section. The 313 million visits represents roundtrips made by residents of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The data are obtained through a combination of immigration and travel surveys. Such sources provide travel characteristics, including trip duration and purpose. In contrast, border-crossing/entry data are collected at the U.S. ports of entry (land, water, and air). These numbers reflect all entries, not just the residents of the departure country. It is not possible to separate these data by trip duration or country of residency.

8 The U.S. government does not conduct surveys on same-day travel to or from the United States, nor does it collect data that include modal detail or travel purpose for all modes of transportation for overnight travel between the United States and Canada. U.S. agencies typically obtain these data from Statistics Canada. However, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' American Travel Survey provides trip purpose data on U.S. travel to Canada for trips longer than 100 miles (approximately 160 kilometers).

9 These data differ from the trip data presented in tables 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. In contrast, the data presented here represent crossings into the United States, collected by the U.S. Customs Service at all U.S. land, air, and maritime ports. These numbers reflect all entries, and it is not possible to separate these data into entries for same-day and overnight travel or by country of residency for the traveler. Additionally, these border-crossing figures do not reflect the number of unique individuals, but instead indicates the number of border crossings (the same individual may make multiple trips). This is not the case for same-day and overnight travel data, which are always referred to as visits or trips.

10 In 1994, there were 54 nonstop markets with annual traffic of more than 50,000 passengers. In 1997, the number of markets with that level of traffic rose to 77, an increase of 42.6 percent (USDOT OST 1998).

11 The agencies primarily responsible for border control and immigration are: 1) the Immigration and Naturalization Service, responsible for checking travelers' documents at legal points of entry; 2) the U.S. Customs Service, which checks cargo, vehicles, and passenger baggage at all ports of entry; 3) the U.S. Coast Guard, which polices seaports, coastlines, and waterways; and 4) the newly created Transportation Security Administration, which monitors and is in charge of security for all modes of transportation.