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Wednesday January 26th, 2022 7:10AM

Canadian snowbirds gear up for reopening of US land borders

By The Associated Press
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PHOENIX (AP) — Canadians Ian and Heather Stewart are savoring the idea of leaving behind this winter's subzero temperatures when the U.S. reopens its borders to nonessential land travel next week and they launch a long-delayed drive to their seasonal home in Fort Myers, Florida.

Restrictions imposed by both countries during the coronavirus pandemic and their own concerns kept the retired couple and millions of other Canadians from driving south to warmer climes like Florida, Arizona and Mexico during last year's freezing winter months.

Now, the Biden administration's decision to allow vaccinated people to enter the U.S. by land for any reason starting Nov. 8 has many Canadians packing up their campers and making reservations at their favorite vacation condos and mobile home parks. Some are already in the U.S., arriving on flights that never stopped and have required just a negative COVID-19 test.

But many have waited to drive, preferring the convenience of having a vehicle to get around in with rental cars scarce and expensive.

Vacasa, a management company for over 30,000 vacation homes in North America, Belize and Costa Rica, said it saw a major rise in traffic on its online platform after the new rules were announced. Canadian users’ views at rentals in snowbird-popular destinations jumped by 120%.

The Stewarts will board their SUV with two dogs and a cat Nov. 10 for the four-day trek from Ottawa, Ontario, to spend six months on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“We love it there,” said Ian Stewart, 81, a retired air traffic controller with the Royal Canadian Air Force. “There’s such a nice feel with the good weather that lets you get out and walk and talk to your neighbors. And you don't have to worry about slipping on the ice and breaking your bones!”

Like the Stewarts, many Canadian snowbirds stay at mobile home parks and luxury RV resorts — with swimming pools, pickleball and sometimes golf courses — for people 55 and over. The Stewarts have owned a manufactured home at their Florida park since 2007.

Arizona is also popular for its mild winters.

The Arizona Office of Tourism expects an immediate economic impact in a state where people from Canada and Mexico traditionally make up the largest number of overnight visitors, said Becky Blaine, the office's deputy director.

“The phones have been ringing off the hook since they announced the border will be reopened,” said Kate Ebert, manager of the Sundance 1 RV Resort in Casa Grande, halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

Renée Louzon-Benn, executive director of the Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce, said the desert community last year felt the absence of visitors from Canada and U.S. Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan, with far fewer people spending money locally. Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said the city of about 62,000 people usually swells by another 25,000 each winter.

Wendy Caban of Lake Country, British Columbia, is thrilled she and her husband, Geoffrey, can soon drive to their resort home in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.

“I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of friends that we made over the last dozen years," Wendy Caban said. “I’m looking forward to the warmth.”

But the couple, both 73, are still mulling when to leave.

“I think it’s going to be insane on Nov. 8,” Caban said. “So, we’ll wait a few days and monitor the lineups and the weather.”

Arizona’s Office of Tourism says close to 1 million Canadian tourists accounted for $1 billion in spending in 2019. That plunged to 257,000 Canadians who spent $325 million last year.

R. Glenn Williamson, Canada’s Arizona honorary consul and founder and CEO of the Canada Arizona Business Council, said the numbers for tourists don't consider longer term stays by part-time resident Canadians who spend months at a time in homes they own in Arizona — as many as 200,000 additional people spending another $1.5 billion locally each year.

With some 500 Canadian companies operating in Arizona, a new wave of younger, wealthier Canadian snowbirds work part-time in the state, where they buy upscale homes and play golf, among Canada’s most popular sports, Williamson said.

Barbara and Brian Fox of Toronto, both in their 60s, plan to keep working for their strategic communications firm when they return to the Naples area on Florida’s Gulf Coast in March and April.

It will be the longest Florida stay so far for the couple, who have canceled at least five planned trips south during the course of the pandemic over restrictions and concerns about possible infection.

Plenty of retirees are planning to head south again as well.

They include Wilf and Lynne Burnett, who haven’t made annual trek south from their hometown in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, since the coronavirus emerged. They typically tow a 15-foot (4.5-meter) boat so they can fish and visit restaurants with docks on the bay.

Now that land border restrictions are being eliminated, the Burnetts have a three-month reservation at a Puerto Vallarta condo starting Jan. 6.

“We’ll keep an eye on the virus and if things continue to improve, we’ll go,” Wilf Burnett said.

Those who decide to travel at the last minute will likely find it hard to book a condo, RV park or campground.

Amid concern restrictions might keep changing, some snowbirds are making reservations for earlier in the season than usual, starting from November through early next year, said Bruce Hoban, co-founder of the 2,000-member Vacation Rental Owners and Neighbors of Palm Springs. Hoban said peak visitor times for snowbirds, who comprise about 15% of vacation rentals, are generally between February and April.

Those who come can also expect prices as much as 20% to 30% higher because of increased demand, he said.

Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida and Alabama RV Parks & Campground Association, said many sites in those states were booked solid from January through March even before the new travel rules were announced. That's because Americans have embraced RV travel during the pandemic, filling spots Canadian campers normally would.

Still, it's “wonderful news” Canadians can return, Cornwell said.

“We encourage all snowbirds to plan to come to Florida and make your reservations as soon as possible," he said.

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