TORONTO — Americans are finding bargains for travel, shopping and entertainment in nearby Canada as the currency known as the “loonie” has swooned to new lows.
Some Americans are switching to Canadian airports for travel because tickets are less expensive than in the United States. At Casino Windsor, across the river from Detroit, 150 extra employees have been hired to cope with increased numbers of American gamblers.
“U.S. customers can play longer with more money,” said a casino spokesman, Jim Mundy.
Canada’s dollar — known as the loonie because of the loon pictured on the one-dollar coin — was worth nearly 75 U.S. cents a year ago but plunged last week to less than 69 cents, the lowest level since its creation in 1858. That meant $100 bought about 147 Canadian dollars.
While that has been a setback for Canadians planning a Florida vacation or dependent on U.S. goods for their businesses, it has a silver lining for retailers and hoteliers catering to American bargain-hunters surging across the border.
Darcy Potvin of Ann Arbor, Mich., said he’s been making regular shopping trips to Windsor to take advantage of the favorable exchange rates, buying winter clothes, a ring and an occasional beer at Patrick O’Ryan’s Irish Pub.
“I come over once a week,” he said. “I’m getting better value for my money all the time.”
Same-day car trips to Canada — an indicator of cross-border shopping — reached a 17-year record of 2.1 million in November, the latest month on record from Statistics Canada.
“I used to take in $1,000 a night,” said Sam Naccarato, owner of Windsor’s Casa Bianca restaurant. “Now with the increase in U.S. business, that’s up to $4,000.”
John Hamilton, spokesman for the Toronto-area’s main tourism association, said the past year has been the best for the local tourist industry since the late 1980s, in large part because of more U.S. visitors.
“We’ve been promoting the good value here for years,” Hamilton said. “For the past year that message has really been hitting home to Americans.”
“In the ’80s, Toronto was seen as expensive,” he said. “Now it’s being rated as one of the most affordable.”
The impact of the currency fluctuations was less evident in Maine, where some business leaders saw the weak Canadian dollar’s effect as marginal.
“They’re still coming, believe it or not,” executive director Keith Guttormsen of the Calais Chamber of Commerce said of visitors from Canada.
Guttormsen blamed any slippage in Maine business on the traditionally slow winter season. He also saw little evidence of Mainers flocking to Canada, citing higher sales taxes and prices that tend to be high, despite the weak loonie.
“If you know what you’re looking for, you can find bargains in Canada,” Guttormsen said.
At the Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle, the number of Canadian shoppers has never reached the levels management would have liked, but executives blame restrictive Canadian customs laws more than a weak dollar.
At the same time, there’s scant evidence that Mainers are flocking to Canada to benefit from the inflated value of their cash, said mall general manager John Dickey.
“I don’t see any Maine license plates” at the New Brunswick malls, Dickey said. “I think there’s a propensity to stay home.”
In New York and Michigan, however, more Americans are crossing the border to take airline flights out of Toronto and Windsor because of bargain prices.
“The cost savings on many tickets is up to 50 percent,” said John Cleary of Cleary Travel in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville.
Glenn Gandy, president of the chamber of commerce in Niagara Falls, Ontario, said the Christmas shopping season was one of the best ever thanks to American shoppers.
“It’s obvious from the number of U.S. cars we see here,” he said. “There’s lots of U.S. plates at the shopping plazas.”
Gandy said his region could benefit even more if it organized a marketing campaign to reach Americans living beyond U.S. border communities.
“A lot of Americans who don’t live next door don’t understand the values here,” he said.
Among those delighted with the loonie’s lapse are Canadians who work across the border and get paid in U.S. dollars.
“It’s like getting an instant raise,” said Matt Van Ham, a Windsor bus driver whose wife, Beth Ann, works at the Canadian consulate in Detroit.