Canadians Buoy Tourism Season

By Beacon Staff

A weak dollar, high gas prices, a late opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road and a modest cherry crop may seem like a recipe for disaster. But during the Flathead Valley’s most crucial economic time, tourism dollars continue to stack up.

Granted, many of those are in the form of loonies from the record number of Canadians pouring over the border to take advantage of their newfound financial strength. They have buoyed Flathead tourism, which past the midway point of its peak season, is mostly unscathed by the country’s slow economy.

Delayed roadwork in Glacier National Park actually helped some tourism sectors. When the opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road was set back, busloads of sightseers and their pocketbooks were rerouted to Whitefish.

“There’s never a slow time during the summer,” Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Director Sheila Bowen said. “And when Going-to-the-Sun was delayed, we noticed a huge difference – they had to find an alternate plan.”

In-state lodging, slowed by late-season precipitation and economic factors, was mostly offset by the number of foreign travelers.

“The park garners visitors from all over the world,” Joann Schadewitz, general manager at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, said. “And our international business is up – it’s exciting.”

In fact, over the last month, some in-state travelers who waited until the last minute to make hotel reservations have been shut out in Whitefish, where rooms have been booked solid. And golfers beware. Reservations at Whitefish Lake Golf Club start at 6:45 a.m. two days in advance.

Canadians and their renewed economic vigor are showing up in hoards. Since 2006, the loonie’s value has risen 30 percent, now slightly stronger than the struggling dollar. Moreover, the price of goods in Canada is still more expensive. In Banff, British Columbia, for example, a pack of Camel lights costs $10 and a six-pack of Budweiser, $13.

A trip to the Flathead Valley, which was once a relatively affordable three-day weekend for Canadians, is now an attractive place for them to buy everyday goods.

“This is where we come four times a year,” Calgary, Alberta resident Randy McDonald said as he waited for coffee at Ceres Bakery in downtown Kalispell. “My in-laws from Lethbridge come seven or eight times.”

The Roosville Port of Entry north of Eureka reported 14,724 auto entries – not including busses, trucks and pedestrians – into the United States during July. That’s 3,000 more than in June and more than double the number that crossed during the same time in 2004.

When the Owens & Hurst Lumber Company mill in Eureka closed in 2005, the community took a serious financial hit. Since then, however, Canadian traffic has helped sustain the local economy.

“We get a lot of people here with second homes,” Silver Fish Gallery owner Clover Kincheloel said. “Eureka is booming. And in the summer, it explodes.”

Eureka Chamber of Commerce Director Randy McIntyre acknowledged in-state travel is down from last year, but increasingly Montanans are traveling closer to home and in larger groups.

“They pick a destination or a day trip and do it without traveling too much,” McIntyre said. “For instance, I saw a group of 17 traveling in two motor homes. Maybe they’re getting together and taking fewer vehicles. Last year there were a lot of couples.”

But, like elsewhere, Canadians are making up the difference.

Roosville Customs Inspector Mike Burris chalks up the increased number of Canadians crossing the border to the obvious: an exchange rate advantageous to our northern neighbors. He says not too long ago, “Americans were doing the same thing.” He also pointed to Alberta’s oil and wheat, two commodities selling at record highs and providing many Canadians with extra cash.

“(They) are buying cars, trucks, and snowmobiles here,” Burris said. “They’re saving five, six, $7,000.”

Canadians who do buy automobiles in Montana, though, are still required to pay all applicable taxes when returning to Canada. But that’s not a deterrent.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans are still traveling north, according to Canadian customs officials. Although statistics were not available, Canadian customs reported that the number of Americans entering Canada through Roosville was high this summer.

Another benefit to this tourism season is visitors to Western Montana haven’t had their vacations cut short by fire. Clear skies are keeping tourists in the valley, including Canadians, who the good-humored Burris says travel more than any other nationality – no matter the financial constraints.

“They’re a traveling bunch of fools,” he said.