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How the Canadian dollar's plunge is hurting Florida snowbirds

To save money, Dann Oliver brought tubs full of groceries from Canada to stock the pantry of his winter home in Gulfport.
To save money, Dann Oliver brought tubs full of groceries from Canada to stock the pantry of his winter home in Gulfport.
Published Feb. 9, 2016

Besides suitcases, swimsuits and sunscreen, Dann Oliver brought something else for his yearly trip to Florida: two big tubs packed with soup, canned vegetables and pork and beans.

Buying food in Ontario is cheap, he figures. And in Florida, his money doesn't go nearly as far: The Canadian dollar has gotten weaker and weaker the last few years, so it costs Canadians more to pay for anything from a can of peas to a vacation condo.

That means many snowbirds are cutting back or heading home early. Or in Oliver's case, bringing enough food to stock the pantry of his Gulfport condo for a few months.

Oliver, 73, of Ramara, Ontario, is one of the more than 4 million Canadians who travel to Florida each year and spend more than $5 billion. And like the flocks of snowbirds that land on Tampa Bay's shores every winter, he's faced with a new challenge this year: making ends meet despite the plunging value of the Canadian dollar.

The loonie, as the Canadian dollar is known, hasn't been this weak since 2004. It has plunged in value alongside the price of crude oil, falling to just 71.6 cents in the United States Monday morning, a decline of 10 percent in the last year and about 20 percent since the fall of 2014.

Snowbirds say that puts a damper on their winter plans. To make ends meet, they've been forced to spend less, head home early or even cancel their trips altogether.

"Everything compared to last year is 20 percent more expensive," said Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist. "It's going to change behavior."

On Clearwater Beach, where some motels fly the Canadian flag, hoteliers like Tony Labricciosa, who manages the Royal Canadian Motel, say they've had regulars cancel weeks-long reservations. Canadians account for about half his visitors, and he expected the cancellations to keep coming.

"It's not just going to be those guys," he said.

The number of Canadians paying for lodging or visiting family and friends in Pinellas County fell 7 percent in the first 11 months of 2015, according to the county tourism agency. Visits had increased each of the previous five years.

The weak Canadian dollar means it costs snowbirds far more to eat out, buy a vacation home or do much of anything. For retirees living on fixed incomes, the decline is especially challenging.

"We're all senior citizens, and we're on pensions, so it affects us quite a bit," said John Finnerty, 76, who splits his time between Lakeland and Ontario. "This is a disaster."

The difference is striking: The average price Canadians paid for a hotel room in Florida rose 22 percent in the first 11 months of 2015, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The cost of travel health insurance policies rose about 20 percent this year because insurers are paying more in the states.

That raises concerns for Florida's tourism-heavy economy, Snaith said. Canada is the state's main source of foreign visitors, more than the next three countries combined.

More than a quarter of them came to west-central or southwest Florida. Canadians accounted for 6 percent of the 5.9 million visitors who came to Pinellas County in 2014.

On the whole, the loonie's decline doesn't appear to have kept snowbirds away entirely, especially those who own property in Florida.

The Conference Board of Canada expects that the number of Canadians visiting the state this winter will hold steady after declining last year. It estimates that 2.9 million Canadians will come to Florida between December and April, a figure it says is bolstered by the high rate of property ownership here and the prevalence of snowbirds.

"There's a lot of Canadian-owned property here. There's a history of Canadian tourism here. Now, are they staying as long or spending as much?" said David Downing, director of Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater, the Pinellas County tourism agency. "It might be a more economical trip, but thus far, from what we have heard, they're still coming."

Homeowners are especially likely to ride out the steep exchange rate because many of their expenses here are set, said Robert Slack, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Snowbird Association. They're already spending on lawn-care services and insurance policies, and they're paying property taxes, condo fees and mortgages.

"You're not going to leave your house empty down here," Slack said. "You've got to pay it, so why not come and enjoy it as well?"

And while they're here, they're cutting back, taking fewer side trips and delaying big purchases.

Statewide, Canadians accounted for 11 percent of foreign real estate sales between July 2014 and June 2015, down sharply from 32 percent the year before.

The day-to-day impact can be subtle. Restaurant get-togethers have fallen out of favor, replaced by potluck dinners. Bargain hunting is in, but even a good sale doesn't have the allure it once did.

"It cuts down what I can do and where I can go," Finnerty said. "I'm not buying anymore, because I'm not getting a deal."

Contact Thad Moore at tmoore@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.