Victoria businesses hoping for an increase in tourist visits this year are not getting much help from the U.S. market, according to data released Wednesday by Statistics Canada.
The national number cruncher showed 1.7 million trips were made to Canada from the U.S. in January, virtually the same number as in January 2012.
Travel of one or more nights from the U.S. increased 0.1 per cent to just over one million trips, while travel by car increased 0.7 per cent to 586,000 trips and travel by plane dropped 1.1 per cent to 293,000 trips. Same-day car trips from the U.S. to Canada increased 1.6 per cent to 619,000.
Meanwhile, 4.8 million Canadians made a trip to the U.S. in January, up from 4.5 million in the same month last year.
While there were some positives — slight increases in overnight car trips and overnight stays — hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree said context is everything.
“It’s a ray of sunshine with overnight out of the U.S. growing marginally, but keep it in perspective: We are at a 20-year low for U.S. visitation and we’re at a 40-year travel deficit with the U.S., with one million coming north and two million heading south — that’s not good. It used to be the other way around,” said Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting.
Bourree said that travel deficit with the U.S. — Victoria’s largest international tourist market — reflects a strong Canadian dollar and increased limits for cross-border shopping.
As of June 2012, shoppers on an overnight trip to the U.S. have been allowed to declare $200 worth of purchased goods, an increase of $150.
For shoppers travelling between two and seven days, the limit has doubled to $800 from $400.
“Victoria isn’t hurt as much as the Lower Mainland is by that, but having said that, January’s numbers suck and February’s don’t look good,” said Bourree.
“It looks like a very soft first quarter.”
In January, average occupancy at local hotels was down four per cent compared with that month in 2012, and the passenger count aboard B.C. Ferries’ busiest route, between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen, was down 1.7 per cent.
Ryan Malane, director of marketing for Coho operator Black Ball Ferry Line, said he has seen the impact of the strong loonie firsthand. “Southbound, we have seen more than a 40 per cent increase from last year in our package sales to Portland and we are getting similar increases [in packages] to Seattle — we are seeing a lot more Canadians coming down for sure,” he said. “Northbound, we are flat or up slightly.”
The Coho ferries more than 400,000 passengers and 120,000 vehicles between Victoria and Port Angeles, Washington, each year, accounting for 60 per cent of total visitor entries to Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Malane said overall, Coho traffic is up close to six per cent for the first two months of the year compared with the same period last year.
While that’s largely because of Canadians travelling to the U.S., he remains confident Victoria will rebound this year as a destination.
“There is demand,” he said. “Overall, B.C. is flat [in terms of growth] at this point, but we’ve still got a lot of new people in this region of the U.S. and we’ve seen some growth coming from Portland. I’m still very encouraged and I think there’s a tremendous American market down there we can certainly revive.”
Tourism Victoria certainly hopes so. The destination-marketing organization has set a goal of 1.5 per cent growth in tourism revenue this year, and last week unveiled a $400,000 marketing campaign designed to make that goal a reality.
Along with stints in Alberta and Vancouver, the campaign will touch down in Seattle to rekindle American interest in Victoria.
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