Weakened loonie hurting winter travel plans for Canadians

TORONTO - Maureen Dennis and her family had high hopes of heading abroad for March Break, but the weakened Canadian dollar has put plans for a sun-soaked getaway on ice.

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"We were just hoping to go somewhere warm.... But everywhere that is warm has been affected by the dollar," said Dennis, founder of WeeWelcome.ca.

"It's an expensive time to go away," added the Toronto-based parenting expert, whose four children range in age from four to 12.

"It is a time that a lot of parents try to make the most of, but it is extra painful when you put the exchange rate on the dollar."

Canadian families and snowbirds who typically flock south during the winter are finding their wings clipped due to the falling loonie.

The Canadian dollar is currently hovering in the 72 cents US range, but has traded at nearly 13-year lows in recent weeks due to several factors, including the diminishing value of major commodities and slow economic growth.

Paul Phipps, chief marketing officer with Visit Florida, said the state saw a slight slowdown in Canadian travel last year, down about 1.5 per cent. But with estimates showing more than 700,000 Canadians own homes in Florida, he expects many will still make the trip while being more mindful of their spending habits.

"They may come here and not stay as long, or they'll come here and eat in more and not eat out. It may affect their shopping decisions," said Phipps, who said Canadians are the top international travellers in every region of the state.

Viji Bahadur and her family will be spending March Break in Miami with relatives. But their travel plans almost took a U-turn when flights from Toronto proved to be too steep. Instead of driving, they plan to save by flying out of Buffalo, N.Y.

"It's already high enough during March Break. But then when you factor in the exchange it's even worse," said the mother of two, who also maintains a bank account with U.S. funds.

Melissa Vroon, founding partner of FamilyFunCanada.com, said a friend going to Hawaii plans to purchase discounted attraction passes at her local Costco ahead of time.

"Other people are looking at other destinations where the Canadian dollar still has a bit of pull, looking at Mexico or Costa Rica rather than U.S. holidays," said the mother of two.

Vroon plans to take advantage of a hotel sale in Mexico and travel on accumulated airline points with her family.

Dennis said she and her family hope to ski during March Break, and may look into resorts in Ontario or Quebec's Mont-Tremblant. But if those options are off the table due to lack of snow, they'll consider activities within the city.

Canadian tourist destinations could indeed see a surge among homegrown visitors.

There has already been a noticeable uptick at Whistler Blackcomb Resort, which is on track to have a record number of visits, according to its parent company's latest financial report.

David Wilcox of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. (TSX:WB) said they're seeing growth among foreign and domestic travellers from outside the area, including Canadians who are more likely stay home due to the currency.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., has launched a campaign where select hotels, live entertainment venues, attractions and restaurants are offering significant discounts to Canadians through the month of April.

"We asked the businesses if they could do something that would approach or approximate taking the Canadian dollar on par that would be ideal.... But interestingly enough, some businesses went above and beyond that discount," said Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Dean said the coastal city expects to welcome more than a million Canadians this year, and wanted to take measures to encourage them to visit and "be able to stretch that money just a little bit further."

"It wasn't that long ago that we were in the midst of the recession. And while it wasn't our exchange rate that was causing the economic pain, we've certainly felt that in our tourism economy.

"It certainly will stretch the businesses a bit to do this," he added, in reference to the discounts.

"But let's face it: Tourism is good business for Myrtle Beach ... and Canadians are a huge part of that."



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