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Canada: land of the spree

Love brought them here, but the cheap Canadian dollar kept them from leaving.

Joseph Carte and Annette Lovejoy drove for two days from their home in Cottageville, W.Va., to Niagara Falls, N.Y., to get married, but the prices they found on a brief tour on the Canadian side of the Niagara River persuaded them to tie the knot here.

The clincher was the exchange rate they received for their American dollars at a local bank. "We gave them $300," the new bride exulted, "and they gave us $432 back."

The Canadian dollar, nicknamed the loonie (for the bird on the back of the dollar coin), has been on a two-year descent that some say is a little bit crazy. Although it perked up a bit in the first half of this year, gaining more than 3 American cents to 68.9 cents May 4, it has turned down again, closing Friday at 66.48 cents.

The longer-term decline, which economists attribute to continuing fallout from the 1997 world financial crisis, has prompted a bargain-hunting boom by Americans. They are saving money by boarding flights to the Caribbean from Canada, placing mail orders in Canada, buying vacation homes in Canada and even sending their children to college in Canada.

Of course, not all things Canadian are bargains. Certain products, notably gas and alcohol, remain far cheaper in the United States because of higher Canadian taxes. And other goods are routinely priced to reflect currency values; a book, for example, might be stamped "US $27.50/$45.00 CAN."

But whenever a currency is strong, there are good prices to be had in markets away from home, and the U.S. dollar is king around the world these days.

The hegemony is making it cheaper for Americans to honeymoon in Paris or vacation in Brazil. But Canada is closer to home, so it gets more than its share of American visitors.

Americans made a record 43.9-million visits to Canada last year, up 8.4 percent from the previous record of 40.5-million in 1997, when the Canadian dollar began its dive, according to the Canadian government.

The American visitors threw their money around, too, spending a record $8.6-billion in U.S. dollars in 1998, up 24 percent from $6.9-billion in 1997. And travel industry executives say the numbers have almost certainly risen this year.

American companies also are getting in on the action, spending $12.7-billion on acquisitions in Canada last year, up 70 percent from $7.5-billion in 1997 and nearly three times the $4.4-billion in 1994, according to KPMG Corporate Finance of Toronto.

"In a way, we're kind of another Mexico," said Ross H. Chafe, the president of Flags Unlimited in Barrie, Ontario. Last year, Aberdeen Fabrics of Aberdeen, N.C., bought a controlling stake in the company, which makes a half-million Canadian flags a year. "It was relatively cheap for them to invest in Canada," Chafe said, "and the dollar allows us to compete very well in the American market."

But this also is a game for weekend warriors, not just big players. Last year, about 20,000 Americans who live near the Canadian border drove to Canadian airports to fly to places such as Jamaica, Cancun and Las Vegas on package tours sold by Signature Vacations of Toronto, according to Chris C. Robinson, the company's national marketing director. That is twice as many as in 1996.

"What we're seeing is a very significant increase over the last two years," Robinson said. He has been advertising in Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., newspapers to draw attention to the bargains. "We've really stepped that up over the last couple of years to ride the wave," he said.

Americans don't even have to leave home to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate. Motorcycle riders, for example, can log onto the Internet to order oil filters, luggage and other accessories sent by mail from Wolf BMW in Alisa Craig, Ontario, halfway between Detroit and Toronto.

"The mail-order business is something we got going about a year-and-a-half ago in response to the Canadian dollar being so weak," said Christine C. McQueen, a co-owner of Wolf BMW. "We sell quite a bit of stuff across the border."

Americans also are buying vacation retreats in Canada. Keith Hodson of Stevensville, Mont., a manager for Para-Chem, an adhesivesmaker, just bought a third home, a two-bedroom condominium 16 floors above downtown Vancouver in a building called the Venice. The price was 280,000 loonies _ only $188,000 in American money. The exchange rate "just makes it a much better buy," Hodson said.

As American tourists throw money around across the border, the ever-polite Canadians are holding their noses as they pocket the cash.

Robin Rootes, a 23-year-old waitress in Vancouver, says the big tips she receives from American customers more than make up for their sometimes arrogant attitudes. "They come over and spend and say they can spend as much as they want," Rootes said. "Yes, they are demanding, and yes, they are high-maintenance." But, compared with the natives, they tend to leave more loonies and toonies, the nickname for Canada's $2 coins, on the table.

The weak dollar is good news for Canadian exporters, too, because their goods cost less in American dollars. As a result, Canada's trade surplus with the United States widened by 7.7 percent last year, to $16.65-billion. By the end of May _ the most recent figures available _ it had more than doubled, to $11.2-billion from $5.3-billion in the comparable period last year.

The losers, of course, are Canadian consumers, who have to pay more for American imports and can only dream about the bargain-hunting trips they once made south of the border. Maxinne Cheng, who manages a store in Vancouver's tourist district, said she missed her trips to Seattle, three hours away by car, where she used to shop.

"There has been an exact switch," Cheng said. "Five years ago, we would go down to Seattle to get good deals. Now the Americans come here for shopping."