Monday, August 27th, 2012
Bellingham hotels see spike in bookings due to Canadian shoppers
Stephanie Ip—The Province

Not only are we buying all their milk, we’re also booking all their hotel rooms in what some are calling “shopping tourism.”

According to Larry MacDonald, manager of Bellingham’s Best Western Lakeway Inn, the hotel experienced a 75 per cent spike in walk-in bookings this summer compared to the same season last year.

A large part of that is thanks to Canadian cross-border shoppers taking advantage of higher duty-free exemption limits that came into effect earlier this June. Visitors who stay for 24 hours can now bring back $200, compared to the previous limit of $50, while those staying for 48 hours can bring back $800, compared to the old limit of $400.

“I don’t know if they’re strategically waiting out their time [by staying overnight] but we’ve seen an influx — there’s a lot more Friday and Saturday nighters,” said MacDonald, who later pointed out a vinyl banner above the hotel’s entrance that read “Welcome Canadian Forces and visitors.”

MacDonald’s numbers only further reinforce a Statistics Canada report released last week that said overnight trips — 1.9 million trips in June this year — were at its highest point since 1972. That’s something economists have attributed to the lure of new duty-free rules and the strong Canadian dollar.

According to Vancouver retail strategist David Ian Gray, cross-border shopping has become a destination in itself.

“We’re shopping as part of the travel experience,” he said, noting nationwide media attention earlier this month — sparked by a Facebook group calling for American-only hours at the Bellingham Costco — has also helped create a “consumer frenzy.”

Loni Rahm, president of the Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism bureau, has not only seen the frenzy come to a boil but welcomes it.

“We’ve done an entire campaign around ‘stay longer, spend more, save more,’” she said, noting travellers generated $555.4 million in revenue county-wide last year. Nearly 60 per cent of that came from travellers who stayed in commercial lodging such as hotels and motels.

“The reason we have so much of what we have available here from a retail standpoint, to restaurants and attractions, is because we draw people from out of the area,” Rahm said. She noted without the steady stream of Canadian shoppers who stay overnight, Whatcom County’s population of 200,000 would not be enough to sustain large chain retailers, such as Costco, or the number of non-stop flights that anchor Bellingham International Airport.

But while shoppers may be saving cash on their back-to-school purchases by spending south of the border, Lower Mainland retailers are losing out.

London Drugs CEO Wynne Powell — whose company actively monitors Washington state prices to stay competitive — encouraged shoppers to do their research, noting what appears to be a saving might not be after calculating travel costs and warranty risks.

“By shopping back home, you support Canadians,” Powell said, noting last year’s back-to-school price comparisons had London Drugs on par with — if not cheaper than — many American counterparts.

Regardless, that didn’t stop Victoria resident Dennis Low from visiting the Bellingham Walmart with his three daughters to stock up on school supplies before parking his car and boarding a $59 flight to Las Vegas.

“I mean, the prices are way better,” Low said with a laugh. “It’s certainly some savings.”

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