Bearish Canadian currency fuels bullish travel environment

Tourists watch beluga whales in northern Manitoba, Canada.
Source: Travel Manitoba.
Tourists watch beluga whales in northern Manitoba, Canada.

If flying over Niagara Falls in a helicopter or coming face to face with a polar bear are experiences on a traveler's bucket list — but not necessarily in their budget — now may be the perfect time to visit Canada.

The Canadian dollar — also known as the Loonie — dropped 16 percent against the dollar last year and is now hovering near 71 cents to the U.S. dollar. In January alone, the greenback added more than a percent against the Loonie.

That means that U.S. travelers heading north of the border for the extended Valentine's Day/Presidents' Day weekend, or perhaps for the NBA All Star Game (Feb. 12-14) in Toronto will find everything from dining, shopping and lodging to local attractions being offered at a discount of as much as 30 percent.

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Travel analysts say the falling exchange rate makes ski resort vacations in Canada especially appealing.

At exclusive resorts such as Vancouver's Blackcomb-Whistler, Revelstoke and Banff, "three-star hotel rooms for Presidents' Weekend can be booked for under $50 U.S. per night, which frees up money for lift tickets and meals," said Brian Ek, Priceline.com's travel analyst.

Arabella Bowen, editor-in-chief at Fodor's Travel, said that "multiday Banff lift tickets cost less than Tahoe at par, and you'll save even more with the exchange rate."

Getting bargains, and passports

Tourist on a day trip to watch polar bears get a close up encounter in Manitoba, Canada.
Source: Travel Manitoba.
Tourist on a day trip to watch polar bears get a close up encounter in Manitoba, Canada.

Long before winter set in, however, savvy travelers were already taking advantage of the deals offered by the devalued Canadian dollar. Rob Taylor, vice president for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told CNBC that last year saw an 8 percent increase over 2014 in inbound travel from the U.S.

According to the group's Summer Travel Snapshot, during the 2015 summer season alone (May to September), Americans lavished nearly $2 billion on the Canadian economy in travel spending.

"2015 was the best year we've had since 2008, when Canada saw a big dip in U.S. tourism because the U.S. was requiring Americans to show a passport to re-enter the country," said Wayne Thomson, chair of Niagara Falls Tourism.

"More Americans have passports now, and I've talked to people staying at some of the hotels who are amazed at the bargains they're getting," he added.

The story is much the same across Uncle Sam's neighbor to the north, one of the world's eight largest economies.


In 2015, Tourism Vancouver recorded 8.7 percent growth in U.S. visitation to the city over the same period in 2014, said Amber Sessions, communications manager for Tourism Vancouver.

"Many hotels and tourist attractions here are taking advantage of the low Canadian dollar to reach out to U.S. travelers with special offers and targeted advertising," she said. As of November 2015, U.S. citizen visits to Ontario were up 9 percent over 2014, according to Ontario data.

Because it's now more costly for Canadians to travel outside of the country, "more Canadians are traveling domestically," said Andrew Weir, Tourism Toronto's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, "so it's a win-win for cities like ours."

Even Churchill (population: 813), the tiny town in the far north of Manitoba famous for polar bear and beluga whale viewing experiences, is seeing increased visitors.

"I'm hearing 30 to 40 percent increases year over year for our Polar Bear Viewing Experience, said Colin Ferguson, president and CEO of Travel Manitoba. The trips range between U.S. $6,000 and $7,500 for a five-day excursion that includes airfare from Winnipeg to Churchill. "But in Canadian dollars that's almost free," said Ferguson.

Big business in Vancouver, but not in Portland

Being able to go on a bucket-list adventure at a huge discount is a big draw for some visitors heading to Canada right now. For others, it's the increased value they get for their vacation dollars at places like Whistler Blackcomb, a top-rated ski resort in British Columbia.

"The dip in the Canadian dollar means a $500 room at a resort in Whistler is really just (U.S.) $350. And compared to a $500 room in the U.S., it's just a way better value. And it extends to shopping, restaurants, activities and so on," said David Lowy, president of Renshaw Travel, a Virtuoso-accredited travel agency in Vancouver.

Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations in New York told CNBC that his company had seen nearly 18 percent growth in destination vacations to Whistler.

"In some cases the airfare to Vancouver is less expensive," said Ezon, "and I can get them a two- or three-room residence at the Four Seasons Whistler for the same price as two connecting rooms in Vail."

Yet one country's feast is another's famine. South of the Canadian/U.S. border, some businesses and cities have seen a drop-off in Canadian visitors, largely for the same reason that Canadian business is booming: the falling Loonie.

"Canadian visitors used to be our some of our best weekend customers," said Sarah Young, owner of the SaySay Boutique in Portland, Oregon, "especially when we reminded them there is no sales tax in this state."

Now, however, "if they're even in town, they're carefully checking the exchange rate and buying fewer items," Young added.


—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.