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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tourism Dollars Flowing North Tables Are Turned, As Canada Gets U.S. Trade

Margaret Hildahl packed her bags and headed to Canada this weekend. She’ll visit family in Victoria and also spend dollars with Canadian merchants.

Gone are the days when Hildahl waited on crowds of Canadian tourists while working at Panhandler Pies in Sandpoint.

“They used to come down in flocks,” says the former Vancouver native who now lives in Coeur d’Alene. “They used to camp in Sandpoint for weeks.”

Now the tables are turned.

With a currency exchange rate that still takes 30 cents from every Canadian dollar spent here, Canadian shoppers are staying home. Worse yet for Panhandle hotels, restaurants and retail stores, local shoppers from Spokane and North Idaho are flocking to Canada to cash in on the strong American dollar.

This weekend in British Columbia, Hildahl plans to buy her husband rollerblades, some clothes and visit tourist sites, contributing to Canada’s almost $4 billion income from Americans like herself.

For the past three years, numbers of American tourism revenues in Canada have increased 14 percent. The numbers have closely followed the decline of the Canadian dollar.

“Before we were bleeding badly. Our travel deficit was huge. Then when the (Canadian) dollar plummeted, things changed overnight,” says Peter Williams, director of the center of tourism policy and research at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. Now British Columbians are rediscovering their own province, he says.

Western provinces like Alberta and British Columbia are seeing more border state tourists. That means more from both Idaho and Washington - the same market north Idaho tourism depends on.

Spokane tourism numbers have slightly increased while North Idaho tourism has largely remained flat the past year. The number of Americans traveling from Idaho, Washington, Montana and Oregon to Alberta has increased 35 percent over the past 3 years.

British Columbia has seen an 11 percent increase during the same period. “There’s no question we’re seeing real growth. The Canadian dollar has helped us out. The open skies (a U.S. and Canadian agreement allowing more airline access to cities) agreement has helped,” says Robin Ritchie, research coordinator for Travel Alberta, the province’s tourism marketing agency.

Idaho officials agree.

“There’s no doubt about it. That part of Idaho has taken a hit from the devaluation (of the Canadian dollar),” says Georgia Smith, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Commerce in Boise. “But they haven’t let that market out of their site.

Once we see the value climb, that market will increase again.”

Meanwhile, in Spokane and North Idaho, tourism officials are still relying largely on Washingtonians and marketing the region to friends and family.

North Idaho hotels have tried at-par offers, taking the Canadian dollar at the U.S. value, but those generally don’t begin until October, after the peak tourist season is over, says Nancy DiGiammarco, head of the Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.

She says new campaigns are focusing on the heavily populated Puget Sound area and Oregon coastline, but they aren’t planning to expand their market.

“It’s a lot easier to invite people back who have already been here,” DiGiammarco says.

Typical visitors to North Idaho are usually on their way to someplace else, says John Hunt, head of the Resource Recreation and Tourism Department at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

The I-90 corridor brings in numbers hundreds of people heading to Glacier National Park, easterners heading to the Cascades and others heading to Canadian national parks. They typically stay only a couple of nights in the Panhandle and head somewhere else.

That means less revenue generated compared with those long-term stays.

“When you’ve got that, it makes it hard to make a profitable destination area,” Hunt says.

The same is true for Spokane, although the city has a more varied revenue base and a stronger dependence on convention travel, says Linda Miller, spokesperson for the Spokane Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. And like North Idaho, Canadians make up only a small percent of total visitors.

“Canadian numbers have dropped, but not so much that it has adversely affected the numbers in the region,” she says.

Other things like flooding and more hotels being built in the area have somewhat hurt local industry. Ken Shueman, owner of the Super 8 motel in Kellogg, says new hotel rooms in Montana and Spokane have taken most of his customers traveling the I-90 corridor. Last summer, filming of the movie Dante’s Peak helped boost sales, but that was a fluke.

“Overbuilding is really hurting us,” Shueman says.

Typical rainy weekends kept the tourists away this spring for golf courses, campgrounds and theme parks, say tourism officials.

But this season has picked up over last and is doing well, says David Palmer of Silverwood Theme Park in Athol.

But there’s no doubt weather does have some impact, especially on the weekends, he says. And north of the border is no different.

One hotelier in Rossland, B.C., just across the Washington border, says June rains washed out his golfing crowd and highway closures kept more visitors away.

Perhaps his sentiment may ease any northern Idaho jealousy. He says the rain is terrible.

“This summer is lousy. It’s the poorest summer ever.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)

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