MICHAEL JAMISON Missoulian WHITEFISH (AP)
Used to be, Whitefish pubs were packed with Canadians. “They came by the bus loads,” said Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Visitor and Convention Bureau. “They filled the hotels.” And then, she said, they simply disappeared. “Haven’t been here in 10 or 15 years.” Until now. These days, “you see a lot more Alberta license plates around town,” Metzmaker said. “They’re everywhere again.” And she, for one, is glad to see them. Turns out, international travel is closely linked to what your money will buy. In the early 1990s, the Canadian dollar was strong relative to the U.S. dollar, the currencies fairly equal, and so Canadians flowed south. The peak, according to Mark Brown, came in 1991, when somewhere around 19 million Canadians traveled south of the border on vacation. Brown is senior market research analyst for the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, an arm of the Department of Commerce. His specialty is tourism travel between the United States and Canada. “The bottom line is that travel patterns coincide with exchange rates,” he said. The exchange rate is a relative value the amount you pay in one currency to buy a given amount of another currency. Brown said that after the peak in 1991, the gap between currencies narrowed, then tilted the other direction, and travel from Canada to the United States began to slow. A decade ago, in June 1997, the balance had shifted and Bank of Canada records show one U.S. dollar could buy $1.38 Canadian. By June 1999, it bought $1.48. By 2002, a whopping $1.53. “We were getting great deals traveling up to Canada, but it made it hard to attract Canadians down to Montana,” Metzmaker said. But in 2003, the Canadian dollar began to gain relative to leading world currencies. At the same time, the U.S. dollar weakened. By 2004, that one U.S. dollar bought only $1.37 Canadian. By 2005, just $1.25. By 2006, just $1.10. And as of Monday, the U.S. dollar was nearly at par with Canada, buying only $1.07 in Canadian cash. And Metzmaker’s Albertans returned, like migrating flocks moving south for the winter. In 2005, Brown’s office in the federal Department of Commerce counted more trips from north to south (14.86 million) than from south to north (14.39 million), something that hadn’t happened in nearly 15 years. At the same time, Canadian tourism spending in the United States hit a record $7.86 billion, up 19 percent from the year before. As of the end of 2006, Canadian tourist arrivals into the States had been on the rise 28 of the previous 29 months, while tourism travel from America to Canada had decreased 17 of the previous 19 months. “I was up in Calgary (Alberta) for the winter ski industry show, and I ran into all these people who said they hadn’t been to Montana in 10 years, and they were excited to come back this year,” Metzmaker said. And come they have. “What we’re seeing is considerable growth in travel from Canada to the United States and significant declines in travel from the U.S. to Canada,” Brown said. For Canadians, today’s exchange rate is as good as it's been in 30 years, he said, which is good news for the Montana businesses Metzmaker represents. “And you’re getting a double whammy,” Brown said, not only are more Canadians heading south, but they’re spending more when they get here. That’s in part due to a strong Canadian economy, and in part due to new rules that increased the amount of dutyfree and tax-free goods that could be transported north, from $200 to $400. “The growth in dollars spent is even greater than the growth in travel should suggest,” Brown said. “Canadian travelers are spending more per trip than ever before. They’re coming to shop.” That’s not surprising because “Alberta’s on steroids,” said Scott Gilmet, director of marketing and sales at Fernie Getaways, a southern British Columbia firm that manages several hotel and condominium properties. “Calgarians have money galore." The Canadian economy has truly boomed in places such as Calgary, and those city folks are looking for mountain escapes, Gilmet said. The last four years have signaled a change in travel trends that mirrors the exchange rate, Gilmet said. Border towns such as Fernie have seen a decrease in U.S. travelers, even as Metzmaker has been counting more Albertans on her side of the border. The biggest drop-off is in the “short-haul, rubbertire market,” the northwestern Montanans who used to cash in on a favorable exchange rate to buy a Canadian vacation on the cheap, Gilmet said. That short-haul market is the same market Montana is now gaining from. “For Albertans,” he said, “Montana is hot. If Montana isn’t looking to Alberta, then you’re missing out.” In fact, “we did do an advertising campaign up there this year,” said Sarah Lawlor, spokeswoman for Travel Montana. It was a 12-page newspaper insert selling the idea of a Montana vacation to the northern neighbors, she said. Metzmaker’s group, among others, partnered in the effort. They hit Calgary; Lethbridge, Alberta; Regina, Saskatchewan; and all the cities of the western prairie provinces. “That’s the first time we’ve done that in 10 years,” Lawlor said. “Canada is really becoming more of a market for us. We’re reenergizing those connections.” And just in time. During the first quarter of 2007, the Canadian Tourism Commission reported record increases in travel from north to south, and the highest-ever travel deficit between the countries Canadians spent $2.6 billion more in the States than did U.S. travelers in Canada. Back in Whitefish, where Metzmaker is seeing all those Canadian license plates, Albertans are again in the top five groups staying at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, something that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s. That’s good news for the local economy, Metzmaker said, as is the fact that those international visitors are spending more per trip, as is the fact that Montanans aren’t heading north, because that means they just might vacation here at home. “Hopefully, this transition is going to be good for us in many ways,” Lawlor said. “It certainly marks a major change in the way tourists travel across the border.” Just ask Gilmet. Despite his own career in Canadian tourism, his family has new vacation plans. “We’re probably going to come down there this summer because the exchange rate’s so good,” he said.