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Weak Canadian Dollar Means Bargains

January 27, 1998

TORONTO (AP) _ Americans are finding bargains for travel, shopping and entertainment in nearby Canada, as the currency known as the ``loonie″ has swooned to new lows.

For the third time in five days, the loonie hit bottom, closing Tuesday in Toronto at 68.69 U.S. cents.

Some Americans are switching to Canadian airports for travel because tickets are cheaper than in the United States. At Casino Windsor, across the river from Detroit, 150 extra employees have been hired to cope with increased numbers of American gamblers.

``U.S. customers can play longer with more money,″ said a casino spokesman, Jim Mundy.

Canada’s dollar _ known as the loonie because of the loon pictured on the one-dollar coin _ was worth nearly 75 U.S. cents a year ago but plunged to under 69 cents last week and continues to sink to levels never before reached since its creation in 1858. At its latest rate, before banks add on fees for changing currencies, that means $100 buys about 145 Canadian dollars.

While that has been a setback for Canadians planning a Florida vacation or dependent on U.S. goods for their businesses, it has a silver lining for retailers and hoteliers catering to American bargain-hunters surging across the border.

Darcy Potvin, of Ann Arbor, Mich., said he’s been making regular shopping trips to Windsor to take advantage of the favorable exchange rates, buying winter clothes, a ring and an occasional beer at Patrick O’Ryan’s Irish Pub.

``I come over once a week,″ he said. ``I’m getting better value for my money all the time.″

Same-day car trips to Canada _ an indicator of cross-border shopping _ reached a 17-year record of 2.1 million in November, the latest month on record from Statistics Canada.

``I used to take in $1,000 a night,″ said Sam Naccarato, owner of Windsor’s Casa Bianca restaurant. ``Now with the increase in U.S. business, that’s up to $4,000.″

John Hamilton, spokesman for the Toronto-area’s main tourism association, said the past year has been the best for the local tourist industry since the late 1980s, in large part because of more U.S. visitors.

``We’ve been promoting the good value here for years,″ Hamilton said. ``For the past year that message has really been hitting home to Americans.″

``In the ’80s, Toronto was seen as expensive,″ he said. ``Now it’s being rated as one of the most affordable.″

More Americans who are deciding to take airline flights out of Toronto and Windsor because of bargain prices.

``The cost savings on many tickets is up to 50 percent,″ said John Cleary of Cleary Travel in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville.

Glenn Gandy, president of the Chamber of Commerce in Niagara Falls, Ontario, said the Christmas shopping season was one of the best ever thanks to American shoppers.

``It’s obvious from the number of U.S. cars we see here,″ he said. ``There’s lots of U.S. plates at the shopping plazas.″

Gandy said his region could benefit even more if it organized a marketing campaign to reach Americans living beyond U.S. border communities.

``A lot of Americans who don’t live next door don’t understand the values here,″ he said.

Among those delighted with the loonie’s lapse are Canadians who work across the border and get paid in U.S. dollars.

``It’s like getting an instant raise,″ said Matt Van Ham, a Windsor bus driver whose wife, Beth Ann, works at the Canadian consulate in Detroit.

But for most Canadians who venture into the United States, the situation is grim _ a U.S. dollar that cost them $1.20 in 1990 now costs $1.47.

In Florida, visited by almost 2 million Canadians annually, tourism officials expect Canadians to spend less money and stay for briefer periods this year, but they don’t see any signs yet of a drastic fall-off in visits. Canadians are looking for bargain rates; some are seeking accommodations with kitchens so they can make their own meals instead of eating out.

But overall, the nation is taking the development in stride _ experts say the economy is sound and predict the weak loonie will help exporters by making their products less expensive abroad.

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