Northern N.E. hoping for a robust Canadian tourist season
OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — A Canadian flag flies beside an American one outside the beachfront Friendship Oceanfront Suites motel, beckoning tourists from north of the border. Inside the rooms, the motel’s rules are spelled out in English and French, the predominant language of Quebec.
With Memorial Day weekend marking the unofficial start to the summer tourism season, businesses had high hopes that the strong Canadian dollar will bring lots of Canadian travelers to northern New England.
A decade ago, when the Canadian dollar was worth about 65 cents in US currency, Canadians made up about 25 percent of the Friendship Oceanfront’s customers, said owner Dan Donovan. Nowadays, the Canadian dollar is worth a little more than a US dollar, and Canadian visitors make up nearly three-quarters of the customers. Donovan is expecting another strong showing this year.
“We’re so lucky we have another country we can rely on to come here,’’ Donovan said recently. “Who else can say that?’’
Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all rely heavily on Canadians for business. In Maine last year, about 4.4 million Canadians made overnight trips, accounting for about 19 percent of all overnight visits.
Old Orchard Beach has been a Canadian summer destination for decades, its miles of white-sand beach a half-day drive from Quebec. It is that French-Canadian connection that gave rise to motel names such as the Kebec and the Beau Rivage.
But the number of visiting Canadians fell through the years as the loonie, the popular name of Canada’s dollar coin that features a loon, tumbled in value. This spring, it has been worth $1.01 to $1.05. With that increased buying power, innkeepers, restaurateurs, and merchants are anticipating a strong Canadian presence this summer.
In Old Orchard, a sign on the window of Ramunno’s Pizza and Grill advertises poutine — french fries with cheese curd and gravy and a favorite among people from Quebec. Karen Ramunno did not sell it when she bought the place 12 years ago, but she added it to the menu a few years ago when a growing number of Canadian tourists asked for it.
Ramunno is not overly confident about the tourist outlook this summer, given the high gasoline prices and the fragile economy. But the Canadian influx has her hopeful.
“I’m a little worried about gas prices and people just not having enough money,’’ Ramunno said. “But we’re hoping for a Canadian crowd.’’
While high gasoline prices may have Americans driving less, Canadians are used to paying roughly $1 a gallon more at home, said John Mahon, a professor of management at the University of Maine.
“With the conversion rate, they’re making out like bandits,’’ Mahon said. “If I were coming to Maine, I’d come with a few extra containers for gas.’’
Even better for Northern New England’s tourism industry: The reduced value of the US dollar in Canada and high gas prices might combine to keep New Englanders closer to home, said Ross Gittell, a University of New Hampshire Whittemore School of Economics professor.
New Englanders “were used to having the US dollar being higher than the Canadian dollar,’’ Gittell said. “More people from Massachusetts or Connecticut could end their trips in Maine or New Hampshire or Vermont rather than in Canada.’’