A Travel Blogger at the Border

This is a recounting of what happened to me yesterday at the US border. I’m writing this to document my experience as well as hopefully create a dialogue between travel bloggers and tourism boards as the reason I was denied entry directly relates to the profession. Canadian stories about the US border experience have been in the news ever since the new administration took office. Here’s a great backgrounder, What to expect when you cross the Canada – US border. Also worthwhile reading A Foreign Reporter Gets a Story of U.S. Paranoia

Yesterday I took a bus from Toronto to the US border in Buffalo with the intention of embarking on a three day press trip organized by a tourism board in upstate New York. The border agent asked me why I was traveling alone on a bus and who I was meeting in my destination. I explained I was a writer invited by a local tourism board to help promote travel to the region. After being asked, I shared my press trip documents to prove that I had a detailed itinerary organized (confirming my hotel, activities, contact person etc). I did not have a return bus ticket back to Toronto as a friend was planning to drive down the following day to meet me. She was going to join me on the press trip as my driver and then get us back home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Let’s just say things did not go according to plan…

At the top of the page it mentioned “photo needs.” This particular destination was my first and only tourism board client. I was thrilled to have the opportunity. I would be sending a selection of photos to them once I got home and had time to edit them all properly. I was aware many tourism boards do this with visiting photographers as it allows them to build a larger library of media that they can then offer visiting publications in the future.

The border agent left me for a few minutes to talk to his supervisors and when he came back he said “you’re not going to be entering the US today.” Over the next several hours I navigated the process of being denied entry into the US. I let the agent know I’d like to ask as many questions about the process along the way so I could properly document my experience. The border agents I encountered were all very friendly and helpful when answering my questions. A few mentioned how much they appreciated how respectful I was being (apparently many people flip out and have a tantrum when they get this news) and I honestly was impressed with myself for having the ability to remain calm as it would have been very easy to burst into tears under the circumstances.

I was taken from the regular line to a larger holding area where people undergo secondary inspections. After sitting in a private room for about 20 minutes I was taken to meet the same officer I originally spoke with. My understanding is that my time here would have been shorter if I had kept quiet but had a long list of questions I wanted to ask to better understand how this was going to impact my future travel.

On a site note: I am hearing impaired and wear two hearing aids to hear properly. One of my hearing aids broke two weeks ago so I was only able to hear out of one ear properly. The room was rather loud (filled with I’d estimate over 50 people – screaming babies etc) as well as a TV that was playing Fox News (I’ll never forget hearing all that praise for Kavanaugh). I informed the agent I was hearing impaired so he spoke louder throughout the conversation…but it was a more stressful situation for me because of my disability.

I chatted with the border agent for a lengthy amount of time. At one point, he got up from his desk to talk to his supervisors because as he described “the journalism profession is a grey area.” As many of you know I have traveled the world extensively (in one recent year I hopped on over 95 flights in 12 months). I consider myself well informed about travel and have never had an issue at any border before. I was not stopped at the border because I was going on a press trip, I was stopped because the tourism board I was working with had not organized a permit for me to travel.

It is commonplace for US destinations to hire foreign travel bloggers to speak at conferences, take photos, write content for their websites, engage in social media promo campaigns etc… I am writing today to hopefully create a dialogue so tourism boards are more informed about their responsibilities as well as media colleagues who may encounter issues like this down the road.

The border agent advised me that my passport is now flagged. Anytime I try and enter the states, or fly through the states to another destination, I will be sent to a second holding area to be questioned. I will have to arrive many hours before my flight (and avoid early morning departures all together) and have a significant chance of missing flights in the future. It was implied that it would be best to avoid busy times at the airport as well as any travel during holidays.

I asked if there was any way to refute what happened. Could I have the tourism board contact a federal agency to explain the error/misunderstanding and have my flagged status removed? He said no. It was when he moved me to a different room and scanned each of my fingerprints and took my mug shot that I realized the impact this could have on my career. I lost my breath for a second and had a mini panic attack as we walked back to the front desk. He called a shuttle bus to pick me up, a large van which is used to send people who have been denied entry back to the Canadian border.

I was dropped at the Canadian border right where all the cars line up. I stood in between two cars (in case you’re wondering that feels very awkward and humiliating) and once it was my turn I walked up to the Canadian border agent and passed over the papers the US agent had given me. I was then sent to a building on the Canadian side to submit my papers to the Canadian agent who I talked with for about 20 minutes.

At this point it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten or used a bathroom all day. I was anxious, my hands were shaking, I felt famished and exhausted. I was finally allowed to use my phone at this point and called my mom to ask if my parents were going to be home that night. I couldn’t hear her very well (oy, hearing issues) but finally cracked, crying into the phone as a group of Greyhound bus passengers stared in disbelief (a career highlight!) I let her know I was at the US border and had to come home. I told her I hadn’t eaten all day and very much needed her to put a bottle of champagne in the freezer and order us takeout for dinner. If anything I’d have comfort food to look forward to.

On the Canadian side the only way to get out is to have a family or friend pick you up, take a taxi, or try and hop on a bus (the only destinations from Buffalo are Niagara Falls and Toronto). I called all of the bus companies but because it was a long weekend all of the buses departing in the next hour were full. The only available bus arrived at 9pm (in my head I whispered to myself “hell no.”) Because it was the Thanksgiving long weekend and my parents live in Oakville (in between Buffalo and Toronto) I decided my only option in getting home was to take a taxi (over $300 in case you’re wondering). Once in my taxi I let out a sigh of relief and closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind. I got in touch with the friend who was supposed to meet me on the press trip to advise her that the trip was canceled. She was so lovely, dropping what she was doing to meet me halfway so the taxi bill wasn’t so excessive (at a glamorous Walmart in Hamilton no less).

Taking the words directly from the border agents mouth, there is a significant grey area in the travel media space. The agent advised me that every time I am questioned at the border they will want to determine if I am going to take photographs for work. I will essentially have to prove that that every press trip I embark on in the US in the future is for editorial purposes and that I am not being paid. The agent suggested I bring a cheap camera rather than a professional SLR to help make my case…but that would entirely defeat the purpose of going on a press trip in the first place as I need high quality imagery for the stories I tell.

The biggest issue I recognize through this process is the border agents lack of understanding on how the media industry works. Most consumers don’t understand how the travel story they read in the newspaper comes to be. I had to explain in detail how tourism boards are funded (often by a hotel tax and government dollars), that they host media on a complimentary basis in exchange for coverage, and that the majority of travel writers when paid by a publication make under $100 for their work. It’s becoming more and more common for print staff writers to accept press trips in lieu of a vacation and aren’t paid for their work by the magazine or newspaper…which will just continue to complicate things.

The fact that I run my own website (I’m the publisher as well as editor-in-chief) becomes even more challenging. When I explained that many travel bloggers go on press trips and don’t earn any money from the work they do on those trips…the agent looked at me with skepticism. I explained that many of us look at our income broadly. I may go on a 4 day press trip as it offers great content for my website but focus on earning an income that month by writing branded stories for a travel rewards credit card or beverage brand for example. My impression was that the agent found it hard to wrap his head around doing work for no or little pay. And for all the travel writers who consistently ask themselves the same thing when hustling to pay their bills…it’s not hard to understand why people question the underpaid work we do.

In an ideal world, US tourism boards would incorporate short term work permits into the FAM press trip development process so that writers don’t have a negative experience like the one I encountered. Ironically, just a few months ago I was in conversation with Brand USA to organize a multi-state road trip next summer from Toronto to Vancouver. Imagine trying to explain to a border agent that you’re spending several weeks on a road trip through the States as a travel writer and aren’t generating an income through the work you’re doing. No bueno.

I believe in being honest and transparent, the border agents I encountered repeatedly mentioned how they appreciated how I dealt with the process. I now have to assess any future work assignments in the US (as well as personal travel) and drum up ideas on how I can prepare myself whenever at the border. In the future I plan on having the CEO/PR Director for the destination hosting me provide a letter outlining that my trip is for editorial purposes and that I am not being paid for services in exchange for my visit.

I was on the fence about publishing my experience but have decided to share this story in hopes that it will help tourism PR professionals and travel media conduct their work into the future.

Are you a US tourism PR professional who can offer insights into how you’ve dealt with hosting media via campaigns in the past? I’d love to hear your feedback. Are you a foreign travel media personality who has been on a paid press trip to the US and had a tourism board secure a work permit for you? Or are you a traveler who has been flagged at the US border and can offer insights into how travel to the US impacted you in the coming years? Please share your stories.