The half-million Canadians who have disappeared from Florida's beaches, condos and theme parks may not be coming back. Not even when their anemic dollar regains its vigor.
For the past few years, Florida tourist industry leaders have blamed an unfavorable exchange rate for a decline in Canadian vacationers. But evidence is growing that Florida's problems up north run deeper and will be tougher to repair.
For starters, younger Canadians consider the Sunshine State a place where their retired parents vacation every winter.
"Except for the theme parks, Florida is perceived as stale," said Martha Chapman, spokeswoman for Signature Vacations, Canada's biggest tour operator. "They've been there, done that."
The generation of Canadians that for decades flooded Florida every winter is being replaced by their children and grandchildren. The younger generation wants new experiences and more exotic destinations. It likes all-inclusive travel packages only huge resorts can offer, with air fare, hotels, meals, things to do and rental cars bundled in one bargain-price deal.
"There's a myth about this decline all being the weakness of the Canadian dollar," said Prior Smith, a commentator with Canada Calling, a news show broadcast by 28 radio stations in Florida. "Canadians are vacationing more than ever. A lot of my friends who used to come to Florida every winter are now vacationing in Myrtle Beach, the Texas beaches, Arizona, Las Vegas and Cancun, the Dominican Republic and Cuba."
Those impressions were confirmed in market research that is the foundation of Florida's first stepped-up marketing program in Canada in several years.
"It's clear we need to reintroduce Florida to Canadians," said Austin Mott, president and chief executive of Visit Florida Inc., the state's tourist marketing agency. "We've been the established brand there. We have to reinvent ourselves."
Visit Florida has replaced its Canadian sales office with a Toronto marketing firm. It hired a Toronto ad agency to craft new advertising exclusively for Canada. It plans to donate more vacations as prizes for radio station promotions.
While the effort will not be backed by dramatic increases in advertising spending, Visit Florida hopes to remold the state's image as an affordable vacation spot with new experiences to offer. After all, it is a strategy that has worked well for Florida's competitors, in the United States, Canada and other countries, who siphoned off more than 500,000 Canadian vacationers from Florida in the past five years.
Statewide, the flow of Canadian vacationers plummeted from a peak of 2.2-million five years ago to 1.7-million in 1998. Winter 1999 was even worse, as Canadian travel to Florida dropped another 18 percent.
The drop has been just as steep in Pinellas County. Since 1993, travel from Canada plummeted 34 percent to 383,000 in 1998. During the winter season in 1999, Canadian travel dropped another 19 percent. Since 1993, Canadians went from constituting 15 percent of all Pinellas County visitors to 9 percent.
Just as Canada's devalued dollar drove up the cost of a Florida vacation, charter carriers and Canadian tour operators carved out new markets to sell for winter vacations. Canadian travel executives think heightened interest in places other than Florida is a trend that will last.
Air Transat, Canada's biggest charter operator, redeployed 5 percent of its seat capacity out of Florida to the Dominican Republic and Las Vegas. If demand for Florida doesn't change, the airline plans to cut an additional 5 percent each of the next three years.
"We offered seats to Florida at a loss last winter," said Kevin Kalbfleisch, vice president of sales and marketing for Air Transat. "We don't see this decline ending in the foreseeable future."
Vacationers are different from snowbirds, the Canadians who spend four to six months in Florida every winter. Their numbers have shrunk, but their ranks are harder to quantify. The Canadian Snowbird Association estimates there were about 350,000 snowbirds in Florida last winter, about 10 percent fewer than five years ago. In the past few years many sold their condominiums, cut their stays and found rentals. Others moved on to more affordable locations in the Florida Panhandle, Texas, Mexico and New Zealand, where the Canadian dollar trades at par.
"It's all directly related to the exchange rate," said Mark Simone, Snowbird Association managing director. "But there are generational issues coming into play, too. Snowbirds 10 years from now will want a different lifestyle."
Baby boom retirees in their 50s are beginning to take the place of older snowbirds. Boomers, however, initially stay only a month or two and are more insistent than older snowbirds on staying near golf resorts or the water.
Florida's tourist industry, which still gets more of its international visitors from Canada than any other country, has not increased its marketing budget or reshaped its image north of the border in years.
"This didn't happen overnight," said John Lupien, director of travel services for the Canadian Automobile Association Central Ontario. "Florida ignored the consumer side of the market too long."
Much of the Florida hotel industry has declined to deeply discount rates to win Canadians' loyalty, unlike some other competing tourist destinations. Instead, the hotels sought to replace the lost Canadians with vacationers from other locales who are more willing to pay the going rate.
The strategy has worked. Overall, tourism in Florida and Pinellas has increased each of the past five years. Hotel rates and attraction ticket prices have hit record highs.
Florida's tourism industry may have to continue pulling off such feats without the help of many of the Canadians whose visits they long had taken for granted.
"We're committed to the Canadian market," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Association. "But I'm not sure we'll ever see the numbers again that we once had."