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Dollar, gas prices worry tourism industry

Projections suggest number of American visitors will drop while more Canadians will travel to U.S.



The loonie has dipped slightly from a 28-year high on May 9 when compared to the American Greenback, and oil prices are slowly receding from record highs in Canada and the U.S., but the B.C. tourism industry remains concerned that both factors could be a one-two punch that drives visitors away this summer.

The third punch could come in 2007 and 2008 when a new passport requirement comes into effect for travelers visiting and returning to the U.S.

According to Mary Mahon Jones, the CEO of the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C., the exchange rate and gas prices are already having an effect.

"I would say (tourism associations) are very concerned about the U.S. market, and we’re definitely focusing our attention there right now, looking at the things we can actually change," she said. "Some things we have little control over, and others we can address. One of the main things is to have enhanced marketing for that market to try and bring them back… but we’re certainly up against some significant issues."

According to Mahon Jones, U.S. visits were down approximately two per cent from 2004 to 2005, and recent statistics show the decline continuing through the New Year into 2006.

"There are a number of different things going on, but gas prices are definitely part of it. Gas prices in B.C. are significantly higher than Alberta or Washington state, so when people do get up here they realize abruptly that there’s an added cost to travelling," she said.

Gas prices also have further reaching implications for the economy, adding to the price of food, transportation, hotel stays and other amenities. Not only is it more expensive to fly, all of your travel costs will also increase.

While fuel prices have always been higher in B.C., those prices have been offset in the past by the low dollar.

"Our exchange rate is not having the advantage it used to have. It’s not only a disincentive to come to Canada, but also an incentive for Canadians to go to the U.S. and other countries," said Mahon Jones.

While the passport requirement doesn’t kick in until New Year of 2007 for sea and air and 2008 for land crossings, Mahon Jones says that it’s already having an impact on travel. She blames that on the fact that there has not been enough communication in the U.S. to explain the new rules, which is why tourism organizations in the U.S. and Canada are lobbying for a delay in the implementation of the program.

Whistler’s own outlook remains positive despite the rising dollar and oil prices, according to Tourism Whistler director of communications Michelle Comeau. Based on the most recent hotel forecasts for the summer, occupancy is expected to be up between five and seven per cent compared to last year.

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