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Tourism season looking promising

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The upcoming season is looking promising as local tourist operators wrap up the trade show circuit and open up shop for the summer months.

But while the strong U.S. dollar may be helping, those in the tourism industry here stressed the exchange rate can’t be given all the credit for the season ahead.

Donna Hanson, president of the Northwestern Ontario Tourism Association (NWOTA) and owner of King Island Resort on Lake of the Woods, said only 40 percent of those who attend sport shows advertise their camps in Canadian dollars.

The rest, she added, do the conversion into U.S. dollars for their American customers. That makes things easier to budget, especially for those living farther from the border who aren’t familiar with converting their money.

“We’re packaged in U.S. funds so it doesn’t matter what the dollar is,” agreed one area camp owner who asked not to be identified. “Most of the bigger camps do [that].”

“A lot of [the U.S. customers] don’t want to deal with conversion,” added Hanson, noting many will return here for their holidays regardless of how strong their dollars was.

Neil McInnis, executive director of the Sunset Country Travel Association which markets tourism in most of Northwestern Ontario, admitted his group hadn’t focused on educating U.S. customers on the strength of their dollar.

In fact, he warned that promoting a weak Canadian dollar actually could have a negative impact in years to come if the loonie gains strength against its U.S. counterpart.

And when a resort already is booked with return customers, a fluctuating dollar won’t make any difference at all.

“We can only take so many customers,” explained Ed Taylor of Taylor’s Cove on Rainy Lake (Bears Pass).

“What we’ve been trying to emphasize right now is value,” McInnis said, noting they promoted giving more value for the same dollar.

But some operators admit the low Canadian dollar is helping lure some Americans north of the 49th parallel--especially those who live closer to the border--while keeping Canadians at home.

And McInnis agreed a strong U.S. dollar would help those who sell gas, food, and sundry items

“It certainly doesn’t hurt us,” he said, but added there still would be some “pork-and-beaners” who brought all their food along with them.

So if it isn’t the exchange rate, what is drawing tourists to the area? Many things, according to those in the industry. But the biggest reason was marketing.

“If anything, we are working at becoming more targeted,” McInnis said, noting their main target was the U.S. market where most of the tourist dollars spent here came from.

A 1996 study revealed 45 percent of all pleasure trips in Northwestern Ontario (including the area north of Lake Superior) originated from the U.S. Those travellers, though, generate 75 percent of the tourism revenue.

Canadian travellers make up 53 percent of the trips but they account for just 20 percent of the revenue.

Camp operators also are using the Internet to advertise their vacation packages. And McInnis felt many tourists were seeking a family vacation.

“And resorts are responding to that in terms of having other things to do,” he said, noting if they didn’t offer the activities at their own resorts, they promoted those in the surrounding area.

But no one could deny the area’s beauty and natural resources were a major drawing card when it came to attracting tourists to the area--and back again in following years.

“They enjoy the fishing. They enjoy Rainy Lake,” Taylor said.

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