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Revenue down 97% at South Surrey duty free as owner waits for U.S. border to reopen

Products approaching best before dates had to be donated, others destroyed
West Coast Duty Free president Gary Holowaychuk stands next to empty shelves inside his store on Tuesday (June 15). (Aaron Hinks photo)

Reopening the Canada-U.S. border couldn’t come any sooner for South Surrey’s West Coast Duty Free, one of only two duty free shops in B.C. that stayed open throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While there hasn’t been an announcement on the border, news of easing restrictions in B.C. is a welcomed sign for Gary Holowaychuk, who described devastating losses in revenue since the feds closed the border in March last year. 

“Revenue is down in excess of 97 per cent. We’re running on two, three per cent of what we used to make. That gives you an idea,” Holowaychuk said. 

While the federal wage and rent subsidies have “softened the blow,” the store still loses money every day due to the significant decrease in international travel. 

Holowaychuk said West Coast Duty Free and Kingsgate Duty Free, located near Creston, are the only two duty free shops in B.C. that have remained opened throughout the pandemic. Truckers account for about 90 per cent of business. 

“I stayed open because U.S. Customs doesn’t allow truckers to use their washrooms, they’re worried about security. We thought (the closure) was going to be three or four months and we thought well, you know what, these guys are pretty valuable to the whole of Canada and when you gotta go, you gotta go.” 

However, truckers only purchase “odds and ends” and do not purchase enough for the store to break even. 

In addition to the decrease in traffic, West Coast Duty Free also took a significant hit due to shelf life of many of the products. It’s regular practice for the shop to stockpile in early spring to prepare for the summer season. 

“My warehouse was absolutely full to the rafters,” he said. 

SEE ALSO: Canada-U.S. border closure extended another month until June 21

As the months of the border closure passed, however, so did the best-before dates of the products. 

While open, the building is closed to the public, but goods can be purchased through a service window. Unlike many other businesses, duty free shops were unable to pivot during the pandemic to online sales or roadside pickup. Everything inside West Coast Duty Free must be immediately exported to the U.S. after purchase. 

Holowaychuk gave Peace Arch News a tour of the facility Tuesday (June 15), and showed the dozens of empty shelves that once held high-quality confectionary goods. The lifeless section hasn’t had a visitor in months, besides the staff that walk through and check best-before dates of the few remaining items. 

About a month before an item reaches its best-before date, Holowaychuk and his staff make arrangements to donate the goods to food banks, schools, shelters and Semiahmoo House. 

He estimated that they donated “hundreds of thousands of dollars” worth of confectionary items. If losing the product wasn’t enough, Holowaychuk actually needed to pay the government to make the donations. 

“The government gave us two options. We could destroy it and throw it into the garbage, or we could pay duties and taxes, so insult to injury. I needed to pay another 10 to 15 per cent on the confectionary to give it away,” he said. 

“It’s been rough but I just couldn’t destroy it. I couldn’t do that. There are things that we did have to destroy.” 

Among items that needed to be destroyed were cigarettes. Two customs officers supervised as West Coast staff used a tree chipper to shred thousands of cartons. 

“A shredder going full blast for about three hours,” he said. “I’m going to say it was about four or 5,000 cartons of cigarettes.” 

A single carton can sell up for to $170. 

“And it hasn’t ended yet. Once we do open up we will be going through item by item. It’s going to take several years to bounce back.” 

The federal government has not yet said when Canadians can expect the U.S. land border to reopen. However, Holowaychuk said his fingers are crossed that that announcement is coming soon. 

“I, for one, am very happy that people are finally talking about it because for the longest time… anybody that mentioned the border (reopening) it was ‘no way, Jose.’” 

In a news conference Monday, Premier John Horgan said he’s scheduled to discuss the international border with other premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday (June 17). 

A new survey by Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada reported that 40 per cent of Canadians want the travel advisory lifted and welcome the reopening of the Canada-U.S. border. 

The survey also found that nearly one-third of non-vaccinated Canadians said they would get the vaccine to travel internationally. For vaccine-hesitant respondents, one in five said they would lie about their vaccination status in order to travel. 

About the Author: Aaron Hinks

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