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Economic woes thwart snowbird migration

With numbing cold weather on tap, many Canadians typically migrate to the Deep South every winter in search of balmy breezes and daily rounds of golf.

But, this year they are sticking close to home, further exacerbating the toll the economy has taken on southern tourism. Even in trendy Cocoa Beach, Fla., only half the rental property is occupied this winter. Usually, there’s a waiting list. “When your finances look a little bit different, you’re just afraid to spend money,” said Edward Realty’s Lisa Durgin.

But, it is not just the economy. In the Florida Panhandle, the Walton County Snowbirds issued an apology last month: “To all those first-time snowbirds, the seriously cold weather that we recently survived is not the usual fare.” Registration for the chapter was down by 200 as economic conditions and the weakness of the Canadian dollar continued to take their toll.

Bill Seratt, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association and director of the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, said casino operators have noticed a decrease in snowbird traffic this year.

“Even with the lower cost of gasoline, many retirees are not travelling and prefer to wait out the winter at home,” he said. “With the stock market news in the last few weeks, I fully expect this trend to continue.”

Canadian Snowbird Association’s (CSA’s) Bob Slack of Ontario, Canada, headed south this winter after all, but has played fewer rounds of golf and dined out less often. He said the Canadian economy for the first quarter of 2009 has been predicted as “a difficult time,” adding that some Canadians lost retirement funds in the U.S. financial crisis and are looking for ways to economize by traveling even further south to take advantage of vacation bargains in the Caribbean or even Latin America, where the currency exchange is favorable.

“No doubt travel is down,” said Chuck Bonelli, marketing vice president for the Southeast Tourism Society. “Our members have said they haven’t noticed a significant difference in the reduction of snowbird travelers or any other category. It’s just down across the board. Everyone’s holding on to money. They’re being choosier.”

Case in point: Last month, the Island Breeze in South Padre Island, Texas reported: “A visitor searching for an empty spot in the parking lot at the convention center this week might have wondered if he got turned around on the road and ended up in Canada. Almost every car on the center’s parking lot — and the lot was overflowing — had a Canadian license plate affixed to the bumper.”

The two-day extravaganza, organized by the CSA, attracted nearly 10,000 people, roughly the same attendance as last year. Medipac, which sells insurance to traveling Canadians, was the primary sponsor of the event. Why so much interest? “In Canada, we have socialized medicine,” explained CSA president Don Gardiner. “But, when Canadians need medical attention in some other country, such as the United States, their needs aren’t paid by the Canadian government.”

Keeping medical options open for Canadians is one reason why the CSA appeared before U.S. Congress in 2002 to fight the passage of a restrictive bill that would have limited Canadians to a 30-day visit to the U.S.

“We’re capitalizing on their successful efforts,” said Mississippi tourism director Craig Ray. “We want to capture some of their meetings and events.”

To offset the downward trend, destinations are offering smart packaging deals. Through June 27, Disney’s Magic Your Way package includes seven nights at a Disney Hotel for the price of four, theme park tickets, airport transfers and luggage delivery. If travelling before March 29, the deal also includes a free $200 gift card to be used on Disney property.

Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi is offering Getaways for two, starting at $150 and including cocktails and a buffet meal, and a Sweetheart deal, starting at $100 and including an oceanfront room, breakfast in bed and guaranteed late check-out.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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