Vancouver On Sale: Americans flock to B.C. amid Canadian dollar woes

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U.S. flag, Vancouver / Shutterstock

As the Canadian dollar continues to plummet against the U.S. greenback, the B.C. tourism industry is in the midst of a never before seen growth.

Since the Canadian dollar dropped below par with the U.S. Dollar in 2012, the number of overnight visitors hailing from down south have increased rapidly, but not yet to the levels once seen when the Canadian dollar sat at over $1.50 USD in 2002. Pundits could base Vancouver’s tourism boom on any number of causes: the publicity of the 2010 Winter Olympics, popular events like the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the city’s increasing appeal for conference destinations; but there is no denying that the cheaper dollar is doing us a few favours.

As 2015 came to a close, Vancouver saw a record-breaking number of visitors – 9.4 million – make their way through our gates. It was an increase of over 500,000 people over 2014’s also record-breaking figures, largely thanks to an abundant supply of Americans heading north. More than 8.3% more Americans came to Vancouver last year than the year before.

Tourism Vancouver is not quick to put the increases on the low dollar, however. They have a vested interest in promoting Vancouver’s appeal no matter how badly the loonie is doing, and piling on the recent success on the economic incentives in place isn’t as flattering to the city’s tourism industry as they would like to promote.

Aside from the obvious impact of the low dollar, Tourism Vancouver spokesperson Amber Sessions counts a number of other factors for the high-performance year. One, she says, was the FIFA Women’s World Cup which brought so many visitors into the city that on the night of the gold medal match between the U.S.A. and Japan hotel occupancy was 99% full.

Another factor was Vancouver’s increasing conference and convention appeal. Almost seven years after the new Vancouver Convention Centre opened, more conferences than ever are choosing Vancouver as their destination. The TED Conference, being the most notable, has resided there since 2014, and just this past year the World Congress of Dermatology brought 10,000 attendees to the space, the International Diabetes Federation brought 8,000, and the Academy of Management sent 11,000 attendees.

The domination of Vancouver International Airport on an international level has also helped deliver people to the city. A record 20 million people traveled through YVR in 2015, thanks in part to the addition of more direct and international flights. Beyond expanding U.S. service, new non-stop service to Dublin, London, Brisbane, Rome, Osaka, Kunming, and Paris was added last year.

Tourism Vancouver also credits the warm and sunny weather Vancouver received last summer for bringing in more tourists than ever.

Regardless of how many crowd-pleasing events Vancouver pulls off, there is also the chicken-or-egg question. Is it the low dollar that is drawing organizers and guests toward the region, or is it simply a coincidence? Some factors go a long way in proving the Americans’ buying power is having a big effect.

For instance, the recent Vancouver New Year’s Eve Celebration pulled 80,000 people down to Canada Place for the first free public New Year’s Eve event in Vancouver in a decade. And it wasn’t just people from Metro Vancouver that showed up; 30% of the VIP ticket sales went to visitors from outside the region.

Staying, eating, and shopping in B.C. has become much cheaper for those from the U.S., making trips to destinations like Whistler more affordable and appealing than they have in a long time. According to Expedia, anyone looking to book a room over President’s Day long weekend – a U.S. national holiday – on February 15 in Whistler may be completely out of luck. The site says hotels in the ski village are 95% booked. If an American wanted to travel a week later, they could book a room at a hotel like the Westin Resort & Spa for $600 CAD – or only $424 USD with today’s exchange rate. Had they gone five years ago, they would have been on the hook for the whole $600.

The value is arguably why Whistler Blackcomb saw their highest number of visitors to date in 2015, despite a dismal first half of the year for snow. The mountain resort saw 604,000 visitors last year, compared to 514,000 in the 2014 fiscal year. Number predictions also forecast 2016 will be another spectacular year for business; future accommodation bookings as of January 3 were 4% higher than at the same time last year and 10% higher than 2014.

Fairmont Pacific Rim’s regional vice president for the Pacific Northwest, Philip Barnes, confirms his hotels have seen an increase in American tourism.

“Add that to the strength of the US economy and Americans travelling again as a result, the appeal of Canada as a safe, friendly destination, and the strength of the cruise industry for example, provide several factors working in our favour as a destination,” he told Vancity Buzz.

The cruise industry is another winner when it comes to the Canadian dollar.

“We are expecting another strong season in 2016 with vessel calls in line with last year and passenger forecasts above the 2015 season. The forecasted 2016 passenger figures are approximately three per cent higher than last year, where we welcomed more than 800,000 passengers on 228 vessel calls by 32 vessels,” says Port of Metro Vancouver spokesperson Rachel Wong.

While anecdotal evidence is virtually in every facet of our tourism industry these days, there is no arguing with the cold, hard numbers. Step back to July 2002, when $1.00 USD was worth $1.54 CAD and 584,713 visitors from the U.S. traveled to British Columbia, despite security concerns south of the border and post-9/11 fears. It was a great time to be an American in Canada and a great time to visit Vancouver. But as economic tolls began to take effect in the U.S., the loonie soared, right up to where it was above par and $1.00 USD would only buy $0.96 CAD by July 2011. In that time, tourism numbers briefly stagnated and ultimately dropped down to only 443,425 visitors in July 2012, even after the success of the Winter Olympics.

As the loonie again began to lose value to us Canadians, the number of visitors began creeping up again. Even today, with the lasting publicity of the Olympics, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a booming cruise port, more direct flights to U.S. destinations, tens of thousands of conference attendees, and international rankings putting us as one of the best cities to live and visit in the world, our tourism numbers have not returned to their 2002 numbers. But they’re close.

If the speculators are right, and the Canadian dollar continues dropping to an all-time low of $0.59 USD, there is no doubt Vancouver and British Columbia will win the hearts and wallets of our U.S. friends like never before.

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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