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Tourism industry busy convincing Canadians that Florida’s still affordable

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Winter is bearing down on Canada, but don’t expect a surge in Canadian visitors to South Florida in the months to come.

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Winter is bearing down on Canada, but don’t expect a surge in Canadian visitors to South Florida in the months to come.

America’s northern neighbor also is suffering from a recession, and its currency has lost value against the dollar since the summer, making Florida more expensive.

Airlines and hotels are touting bargains to lure Canadians. State tourism agency, Visit Florida, features a Canada section on its Web site with deals, including some hotels that are half-off from last winter. Round-trip airfares from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? – Click Here. now can run $300, down from $600 or more a year ago.

“I’ve never seen such (airline) seat sales,” said Henny Groenendijk, Visit Florida’s public relations manager in Toronto.

Canada matters, because the nation of 33 million residents sends more visitors to Florida than any other country. Canadians also tend to stay relatively long: 17 nights on average. And they include tens of thousands of “snowbirds” who own homes in Florida and often come for three-month stays in winter.

Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports is especially popular for Canadians, with Quebec residents long congregating around Hollywood Beach. At the 250-room Ramada Hollywood Beach resort, international guests account for about 60 percent of business, led by Canadians, said Melody Dixon, sales and marketing director.

Surging international arrivals helped offset a decline in U.S. visitors through most of 2008, helping hotels weather the U.S. economic slump. Canadian arrivals to Florida in 2008 are expected to rise 4 percent to more than 2.6 million visitors, a new record travel leaders said.

But uncertainty weighs heavily in Canada this winter even as early storms bring snow to Toronto and other cities. The auto industry is vital in Ontario, the source of most Canadian travelers to Florida, and shrinking auto output has brought layoffs there.

“We’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Big Three automakers,” said Martha Chapman, a travel marketer in Toronto who works with such Canadian tour operators as Sunwing Holidays. “So as far as travel, a lot of us are reluctant to commit. I think the trend will be very last-minute bookings.”

Exchange rates also pinch. Canada’s currency now buys less — roughly 82 cents of a U.S. dollar today, down from about $1 this summer. That drop has Misty Polihronakis, sales director for the 311-room Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach, expecting less Canadian business this winter.

“Canadian travel is directly proportional to the strength of their dollar,” she said.

Those Canadians who do travel may opt to stay fewer days and in less expensive places because of the economic woes and weaker currency, experts say.

South Florida tourism leaders are promoting the area to reluctant Canadians.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau plans a Canada mission soon to tout deals to tour operators and media. It also is encouraging Canadian airlines to boost service and recently secured a new Ottawa-Fort Lauderdale route by WestJet, said Alfredo Gonzalez, vice president for international tourism.

“We think Canadian arrivals to our area will be flat or maybe up a bit this winter,” said Gonzalez, noting that Canada’s recession is not as deep as America’s, air service remains strong and bargains may convince some travelers “they really can afford a trip now.”

But Florida is not alone in offering deals to Canadians this winter.

Caribbean destinations, from the Dominican Republic to Cuba, also are dishing up specials, sometimes as cheap as $700 per person per week, including airfare, meals, drinks and activities at all-inclusive resorts, Toronto travel marketer Chapman said. Some Canadians may opt for Cuba this winter, figuring that a new Obama administration may lift restrictions on U.S. travel to the communist-run island, opening the floodgates to U.S. vacationers to Cuba later.

“Once U.S. demand to Cuba is unleashed,” Chapman said, “prices in Cuba are likely to go up.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.