CANADA

Catching the wave

The falling dollar drives up domestic tourism

MARY NEMETH August 15 1994
CANADA

Catching the wave

The falling dollar drives up domestic tourism

MARY NEMETH August 15 1994

Catching the wave

The falling dollar drives up domestic tourism

At postcard-perfect Peggy’s Cove just southwest of Halifax, it is what Nova Scotians call a “grand” or “large” day. The sky is a great blue expanse, the sun is gleaming and the Atlantic is lapping at the granite shoreline. A bagpiper plays, the gulls cry and the tour buses roll in to discharge scores of visitors. “We kept hearing it was going to be a bumper year,” says Tobias Beale, whose family runs Beales’ Bailiwick, an art, crafts and fashion shop in Peggy’s Cove. “But right up to the end of June—if you had asked me—I would have said it was nothing but a rumor.” Then, July brought a wave of tourists after all. And in the wake of several soggy tourist seasons, they are a welcome sight to Beale and his fellow businessmen. “The weather’s great and that has a lot to do with it,” he says. So does the low Canadian dollar. “A lot of people from Quebec and Ontario say so,” reports Beale. “They are coming down here for the first time rather than going to Maine or Vermont or their other favorite spots.”

The low Canadian dollar has, in fact, sparked a mini-boom in the domestic tourism industry. Although only 59 per cent of all Canadians planned to take vacations this summer, according to a March survey by the Conference Board of Canada, most of them—63 per cent—said they would stay in

the country rather than travel abroad. That is about the same proportion as last year, but up five percentage points from the years before that. And those numbers may underestimate the true state of affairs: since the survey was taken in March, Canadian currency tumbled another point to hover around 72 cents on the U.S. dollar. Meanwhile, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent seasonally adjusted data, Canadians made 1.6 million overnight trips to other countries in May, down nearly 10 per cent from May, 1993. The bargain-basement dollar appears, conversely, to be attracting foreigners. In May, the most recent month for which figures are available, 283,000 people visited Canada, up nearly seven per cent from last year.

All that has left tourism operators on the U.S. side of the border none too pleased. John A. Johnson, director of tourism information for the state of Maine, says that 2.53 million people had crossed the Canadian border into Maine by the end of June, a 22 per cent decrease from the same period last year. To make matters worse, he says, “Canada is a very good bargain right now, so a lot of Americans who may have come to Maine for three nights are staying one, and then going off to Canada.” The Canadian tourism industry, he says, “is getting a real boon because of this exchange rate.”

According to the Conference Board survey, the largest share of Canadian travellers— nearly one-fifth of those who were planning summer holidays—intended to vacation in Ontario this year. It would be a slight exaggeration to say all those tourists tried to crowd onto Lake Huron’s Chi-Cheemaun ferry out of Tobermory, Ont., on the Aug. 1 long weekend, but a good many of them did. The ferry sails to South Baymouth on scenic Manitoulin Island four times a day. And by 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, the parking lot was full and cars were lined up three-deep on the road—enough vehicles to fill the next two ferries, and then some. Susan Schrempf, marine supervisor for the company that owns the ferry, says the ship had carried 23,489 vehicles by the end of July—a three-per-cent increase over the same period in 1993. One of the passengers on the holiday weekend, Tara Reynolds of Toronto, said the low Canadian dollar influenced her decision to spend her vacation dollars domestically. But there was more to it than that. “I find myself getting more Canadian as I get older,” said Reynolds, 27. “I don’t know if it’s the economic and cultural threat from the States. But it’s kind of a growing awareness, a kind of pride in Canada—although I know that sounds kind of hokey.”

Whatever their motivation, neither crowded ferries nor searing sun nor even raging fires seem to keep Canadian tourists from their appointed destinations. News reports in late July that flames were licking at the outskirts of Penticton, B.C., a resort city in the Okanagan Valley, prompted a few hotel cancellations, says Michael Campbell, president of the local chamber of commerce. But the vacancies were quickly filled by others on waiting lists. “Things are booming here, I’m happy to say,” adds Campbell. The fire has now been largely contained and Campbell points out that it never actually endangered the tourist areas in the city. But visitors frolicking in Skaha Lake could not help but notice a haze from the fires hanging over the surrounding hills.

The rush on Canadian tourist sites, however, has a downside as far as Gary Tufford is concerned. A 39-year-old sportswear company representative from Halifax, Tufford was in Toronto on business in mid-July. He drove back towards Nova Scotia early one Sunday morning, arriving in Quebec City at about 5 p.m. “I thought about the reservation thing,” says Tufford. “But I drive North America all the time and it’s been no problem.” On this occasion, the hotel where he usually stays was fully booked—as were the next dozen hotels and motels he tried. “There was almost a caravan,” says Tufford. “You’d see the same people pulling in behind you at each hotel.” Finally, Tufford gave up and drove another 200 km to Rivière-du-Loup, where the situation was even worse. “I had never seen anything like it—it was bizarre, unbelievable,” says Tufford. “I thought there was a special event, but evidently it was all tourists.” Unable to find a room, Tufford tried Edmunston, N.B., in vain. “By that time, it was two in the morning,” he says. “That was it. I just drove through.” Tufford finally made it to Halifax, after 29 hours on the road. “I’m still not over it,” he says, a week after the arduous drive. In that case, while he is recovering, he should probably avoid tangling with the tourists at nearby Peggy’s Cove.

MARY NEMETH in Tobermory with

MERLE MacISAAC