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With currency strong, Canadians come calling

Northern U.S. border towns are enjoying a surge of tourism this summer as the soaring Canadian dollar makes it more affordable for Canadians to vacation in the United States, enticing more people to get into their cars despite the hassle of long waits at border crossings.
A Canadian flag flaps in the breeze along a street at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Canadian tourists are welcome.Pat Wellenbach / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hotels here fly Canadian flags alongside the Stars and Stripes. Desk workers speak French, in addition to English. Fries are served up Canadian-style, topped with vinegar, or gravy and cheese.

Old Orchard has long been a haven for Canadian tourists because the seven-mile stretch of sandy beach represents an easy drive from Quebec.

This summer, there are more of them as the soaring Canadian dollar makes it more affordable for Canadians to vacation in the United States, enticing more people to get into their cars despite the hassle of long waits at border crossings.

"They say there are more Canadians than ever before. It's good for everyone," said Claire Beaulieu, an owner of the Motel Kebec 2, a stone's throw from the beach, where every single car in the parking lot had Quebec license plates on a recent morning.

Last summer, Canadian tourists probably thought it couldn't get any better after the loonie, the Canadian dollar named after the loon in the back of the coin, reached a 28-year high against the greenback. That meant they could trade in their loonies for 90 U.S. cents.

Since then, the Canadian dollar has grown even stronger. Today, the loonie and greenback are nearly equal, with a loonie being worth about 95 cents.

It's a dramatic change from five years earlier, when the loonie was worth 62 cents in the United States. Canadian travel to the U.S. has grown 23 percent since then, according to data published by the Commerce Department.

"These are some of the best days for Canadian tourists who wish to travel south of the border for their summer vacation since bellbottom jeans and disco balls were all the rage," said Michael Woolfolk of the Bank of New York Mellon Corp.

Canadians should get used to it. The trend is expected to continue for several years, said Woolfolk, a senior currency strategist.

Some Canadian banks have had to dip into their reserves after running out of greenbacks as Canadians cash in their loonies for trips to the United States, said Manny Witt, director of the New England Tourism Office in Montreal.

Julie Arseneault of Rose Mere, Quebec, said she and her husband decided to drive to Maine with their 5- and 2-year-old children instead of taking a flying vacation because of the strength of the Canadian dollar, as well as cheaper gas in the United States. Gas is roughly $1 a gallon more expensive in Canada.

"That's why we came this year," Arseneault said as she unloaded her sport utility vehicle packed with luggage and toys outside the Royal Anchor Resort.

Canadians like the Arsenaults used to come in large numbers, but some of them stopped coming when the value of the Canadian dollar dropped. Last year, many in the tourism industry noticed that the trend had shifted again.

Bud Harmon, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, said half of the visitors this summer are from Canada — like it was 20 years ago.

"They're all coming back. We have more Canadians this year — more and more!" said Lorraine Bureau, who works at the Royal Anchor Resort. "We like to have the Americans come, too, but the rooms are all taken."

Canadians have always liked the Coney Island-style atmosphere at Old Orchard Beach, which is known for its famous pier, vast beach and carnival-like atmosphere with arcade games, amusement rides, pizza parlors and T-shirt stores.

And Canadians seem unfazed by the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

"The beach here is to die for," said Jean-F. Remillard of St. Bruno, Quebec. "The people who say the water is too cold, they don't know what they're talking about. We're very hardy people."

The number of overnight trips by Canadians to the U.S. has been growing steadily since April 2003, when travel slowed because of concerns over the war in Iraq and the SARS scare, according to Statistics Canada. New York is the most popular destination for Canadian visitors, followed by Florida and Washington state.

"It's a real bargain," said Suzanne Tanguay, 81, of Sherbrooke, Quebec, who has been coming to Old Orchard Beach for more than 40 years.

She and her sister, Marthe, 78, recall the bad years when they'd cash in $100 in Canadian dollars and receive $60 in greenbacks in return.

The exchange rate works well for businesses, as well. When the Canadian dollar was weak, Canadian tourists often sought discounts from hotels, restaurants and retailers.

That's no longer the case.

"There's not as much haggling over the prices," said Stan Eaton at the Grand Beach Inn. "When the Canadian dollar was substantially lower, there was more haggling. They were looking for any kind of discount they could get."