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State tourism leaders make pitch in Canada

Back in Florida, it's hot and steamy. But a delegation from Florida has spent a week here in the glorious Canada summer trying to sell the advantages of a vacation in the Sunshine State.

Canadians are vital to Florida's tourism, especially Pinellas County, and tourist officials are working hard to overcome a recent slump in Canadian visitors.

Statewide, Canadian tourism sank by 26 percent to 1.85-million visitors last year _ down from a high of 2.5-million in 1992, according to Lee Daniel, public relations director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau. In Pinellas, the 550,000 Canadian visitors amounted to a 12 percent drop from 1993.

The Florida delegation treated travel writers and key tourism officials to an evening yacht cruise of the Toronto waterfront and a gala evening of "Southern hospitality" in Montreal.

"This shows how important the Canadian market is to us," Daniel said.

The delegation has several obstacles. Crime in Florida has been well publicized here. Canadians who spend time in Florida must get supplementary health insurance. Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are all seeking Canadian tourists with low-priced, all-inclusive package vacations. And the Canadian dollar is weak.

The Florida delegation is promoting the state as a "value destination" for Canadians in spite of Canada's devalued dollar, now worth just 72{ U.S. cents.

Ellis Webber, Florida's director of marketing in Canada, said a survey of prices showed vacation costs in Florida are 30 to 40 percent lower than Canadians would pay at home.

But many Canadian tour operators still think Florida package deals must come down in price to generate business in Canada. And many Tampa Bay area hoteliers are reluctant do so when they think they can fill their rooms next winter with increased numbers of Europeans and South Americans who are beginning to flock to the region.

The Canadian market is vital to the economic health of Florida, pumping $2-billion annually into the state, said Charles Wright of the Florida Department of Commerce. He estimates that every 25 Canadian visitors equals one full-time job in Florida.

"The mood seems to be upbeat about travel to Florida by Canadians," Daniel said, adding that while he doesn't expect "a significant upturn, we're going to start heading back up."

One incentive is the recent start of regularly scheduled flights by Canadian Airlines International to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.