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Snowbirds packing car in snow with Florida or bust on side
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Fla. Misses Snowbirds – and Snowbirds Miss Fla.

Many Canadians will have a white Christmas this year – and they’re not happy about it. With the border closed until at least Nov. 21, a risky flight is the only way down.

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Amanda and Mark Parlee could have a white Christmas this year.

They’re not happy about it.

The Canadians usually spend the winter holidays at their second home in sunny Southwest Florida with family, who fly in to visit them in Cape Coral.

The couple will break their long-standing tradition this year, however, because of COVID-19, which has led to travel restrictions that will keep them and many other would-be visitors from Canada in their home country – at least for now.

“We are really itching to get back,” said Amanda Parlee. “But we are kind of stranded.”

As a result, the Parlees could see snow and clouds for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, instead of sand and sunshine.

Due to the pandemic, Canadians are not allowed to drive to the United States for sun and fun – or leisure travel. Unless it’s deemed essential, travel between the two countries is prohibited until at least Nov. 21, by car, train, or boat, with the latest extension of the ban by the prime minister.

Although Canadians can still fly into the U.S., the Parlees and many others aren’t comfortable doing so with the continued spread of COVID-19 – or the added cost. The couple would prefer to drive to Southwest Florida as they’ve done for decades.

“Right now we’re landlocked,” Amanda Parlee said. “It’s really affecting a lot of Canadians, the snowbirds that typically need a car while they are down there in season,” she said.

This much is clear: The absence of Canadian visitors and part-time residents, for however long it lasts, will be – and has been – felt in Southwest Florida.

Feeling the effects

In 2019, Lee County saw more than 216,700 visitors of all kinds from Canada, including those staying at hotels, as well as day-trippers and others rooming with family and friends. That represented 4.4% of all visitors to the county last year – and they spent nearly $218 million, said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The biggest impact from the travel ban may have yet to be seen in the county, depending on how long it lasts.

“Visitation from Canada is highest in the first three months of the year,” Pigott said. “In fact, during the first quarter of 2019, Canadians represented 8% of our visitors to the area.” Visitor statistics are reported quarterly in Lee, but third-quarter data for July through September won’t be out until Nov. 12, which could put some numbers to the effects so far, Pigott said.

Some Canadians, who started out as tourists, have become winter residents who own homes in Southwest Florida, including in Lee and Collier counties.

While Canada is an important market for tourism in Collier, it’s not a huge market, which means the blow might not be as significant to the area’s hotels or resorts, said Jack Wert, executive director at Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The visitor market share has been small for quite a few years,” he said. “It’s basically gone to zero now.”

Last year, Collier saw a little over 47,000 Canadians staying in its hotels and other short-term vacation rentals, according to a report by private consultant Research Data Services. While that number increased by more than 27% over the year, it still paled in comparison to the county’s top feeder markets within the United States, including the Northeast and Midwest – and other parts of Florida.

Due to international travel restrictions, the county has seen few if any visitors from Canada or Europe, making it too small to measure and difficult to determine the real extent of the impact, Wert said.

It isn’t just missing tourists from Canada, as evidenced by the Parlees, part-time residents who left after the pandemic hit in March, when they and thousands of other Canadians fled the region, state and country en masse after their prime minister urged them to come home and insurers threatened to cancel their out-of-country medical coverage if they didn’t.

The Parlees have owned a home in Cape Coral since 2008. They would have normally already been back to enjoy it – and to check on it – a few times.

“When you drive into Florida, you just feel like you have arrived home,” Amanda Parlee said.

The couple especially gets that feeling of home when they go to Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon, a rustic restaurant off Pine Island in Cape Coral, that they’ve eaten at countless times for more than 20 years. They sorely miss it and look forward to going there again one day – and not just for the food. The Parlees think of the restaurant’s owner and his employees as family.

“I think we have more American friends than Canadians,” Amanda Parlee said. “It’s just such a wonderful place to be.” That only adds to her frustration over the U.S.-Canada border restrictions that have kept her and her husband from returning to Southwest Florida since spring.

At Bubba’s Roadhouse, the absence of the Parlees and other visiting Canadians has been very noticeable, said Jay Johnson, the restaurant’s owner.

“We have been in business since 1994, and we have customers that have eaten with us since then, many of whom are Canadian,” he said.

Businesses take financial hit

While it’s hard to put a number on how much of the restaurant’s sales come from Canadians, Johnson said business declined by almost 20% over the year in October – and that’s the month when he usually starts seeing them come down, but didn’t.

“There is no doubt that we are feeling the impact of not having our Canadian visitors,” he said.

Some of his most loyal Canadian customers have reached out to check on the business and its employees to make sure they are doing OK in these difficult times and to reassure them that they will return “as soon as they are allowed,” Johnson said. “We in turn let them know how much we miss them and reassure them that we will be here when they can travel,” he said.

Like many local restaurants, Bubba’s has taken a big financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic this year. Restaurants across the state were forced to shift to a take-out only model in mid-March, designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. In early May, when eateries were allowed to reopen with 25% capacity for indoor seating, Johnson said he brought all his employees back who wanted to return.

While he can operate the restaurant at full capacity now, with all of the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions lifted in September, business has been much slower in general.

“Most of our employees are working less hours than before COVID and the Canadian market has impacted that as well,” Johnson said.

The restaurant has 35 employees, he said, including himself, and he’s worked hard to keep them through the pandemic.

What about hotels and rentals?

The absence of Canadian visitors has already impacted hotels and other overnight rentals, but not equally, as some don’t attract as many of them as others do.

Fortunately, for the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach, overseen by the Boykin Management Co., it hasn’t been a big issue, said principal Robert Boykin.

“Sure, we don’t see any Canadian business,” he said. “But, candidly, we didn’t get much of it anyway. I’m sure we had Canadian customers, but the amount of the market that they would represent to us would probably be a low single-digit number. So if they are gone, it’s a 2 to 3 or 4 percent impact.”

He said, however, it will be interesting to watch and see how the resort’s restaurant and other eateries, along with other local service-oriented businesses on Fort Myers Beach, might be impacted on a larger scale by having fewer Canadian visitors and tourists in Southwest Florida this winter.

“I’m not sure if we will feel it or not,” Boykin said.

Chris Dawson, a customer service manager at the Red Coconut RV Park on Fort Myers Beach, said many Canadians who had planned to stay there in season, which traditionally starts in November and runs through April, have canceled outright because they don’t know when they can drive down here.

Luckily, he said, the park has been able to fill at least some of its rental spots with other visitors, mostly from other parts of the United States, due to the growing popularity of road trips among Americans, who see them as a safer way to travel and vacation as COVID-19 continues to spread in parts of the country.

“It kind of seems like we are going to be seeing a lot more new people here than the usual people,” Dawson said.

At the Inn on Fifth in downtown Naples, Cathy Christopher, director of sales and marketing, said “business is taking a big hit from many directions right now. The Canadian market has long been a large and very important component of our hotel operation, and we are feeling the impact of the loss of the Canadians, along with all international markets that are closed to us right now.”

At the airport

Southwest Florida International Airport has definitely noticed an impact from the border restrictions. Transborder flights into the airport stopped on March 26, a few days after the border closed, said spokeswoman Victoria Moreland. Air Canada resumed a single weekly flight at the airport Oct. 10, she said, while WestJet restarted its service Nov. 7.

From January to September, Southwest Florida International saw 126,152 passengers flying on Canadian carriers, Moreland said. That compared to nearly 320,000 for the same months last year, when flights ran as usual, she said.

“Understand that not all passengers on Canadian carriers will be Canadians,” Moreland pointed out.

Canada has been an important tourism market for Florida overall. Statistics shared by VisitFlorida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, show Canadian visitation saw its second year of consecutive growth in 2018, increasing by nearly 2% to reach 3.5 million. In 2018, Florida saw 14.4 million international visitors, including Canadians, representing nearly 10% of the state’s total visitation.

While flights to and from Canada have resumed at Southwest Florida and other airports in the state, it won’t make a difference for some would-be visitors, who can’t or don’t want to fly to get here.

Retired Canadians Shelton and Karen Papple, who own a winter home in south Fort Myers, may not be seen as tourists, but he pointed out they usually spend a lot of money when they’re here, contributing to the local economy, eating out, golfing and shopping. They’re usually here by now, arriving at the end of October, but they haven’t come down yet because he’s not able to fly for health reasons. They always drive down – and have done so since 2008.

The restrictions on crossing the border, he said, are discriminatory and unfair, especially to part-time residents of Florida, like himself, who pay taxes and in many cases HOA fees for their winter homes. He stresses there are wider impacts because the restrictions are also keeping tourists away – who would normally be staying in hotels or other vacation rentals, as well as spending a lot of money in the destination.

“You know as well as I do, tourism is one of the biggest things besides agriculture in Florida,” Shelton said. “So there is a lot of pissed off people that want to go to Florida and can’t get to Florida.”

© 2020 Journal Media Group