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Tourism ‘rowing with all oars’ as international visits jump

A view of the CN Tower in Toronto.

Steam Whistle Brewing

This is turning out to be a banner year for international tourism to Canada, with big jumps in visits from residents of the United States, China, South Korea and Mexico.

Figures released by Statistics Canada on Tuesday show international visits are up 11 per cent for the first seven months of this year, compared to the year-earlier period, with about 11.2 million people travelling here.

Americans, who are by far the biggest source of foreign tourists to Canada, made 7.9 million overnight trips to Canada between January and July, up 11 per cent. About 3.3 million visitors came from other countries.

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With the jump in international visits so far this year, the volume of tourist travel to Canada has almost climbed back to the levels of the early 2000s. In the first seven months of 2001, almost 11.5 million people visited Canada, a record that has not been hit since.

Americans in particularly did far less travelling to Canada after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in September of 2001, partly because of new security rules that required them to have passports to come here, a weak economy, and a Canadian dollar that was at or close to par with the American dollar for several years.

Now, with a more favourable exchange rate, increased air access and lower visa requirements for several countries, and a solid advertising and marketing effort, Canada has become more attractive.

"We are rowing with all oars," said David Goldstein, president of Destination Canada, the Crown agency responsible for marketing Canadian travel outside the country. "We have hit a sweet spot as a destination."

The biggest jump in the January to July numbers came from China, where 23-per-cent more tourists arrived in the first seven months of the year, compared to 2015, for a total of 347,000 visits.

China is now the third largest source of foreign tourists in Canada, after the United States and Britain. Chinese tourism to Canada has been accelerating since a 2010 agreement that gave Canada "approved destination status." That allowed direct-to-consumer tourism advertising and permitted Chinese group visits.

There are now non-stop flights from several Chinese cities to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. More flights – from more cities – are expected to be added after a recent agreement that will let Canada open seven new visa application centres in China, in addition to the five already there. The new centres will make it easier for people in secondary cities to do the paperwork in preparation for a visit to Canada.

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The jump in Chinese tourism has prompted the Tourism Industry Association of Canada to establish a "China readiness" program that helps tourism operators understand cultural issues so they can make Chinese travellers feel welcome. Destination Canada says it will boost its promotional spending in China by about 40 per cent over the next two years.

South Korea showed the second biggest percentage jump in tourism in the January to July period, with about 142,000 tourists coming to Canada, up almost 20 per cent from the year earlier. Increased airline capacity has helped boost those numbers.

Visits from Mexicans showed a 17 per cent increase, to 149,000. That number is expected to grow even faster going forward, as Canada has decided to drop a visa requirement for Mexican citizens that has been in place since 2009.

When the change was announced in July, Canadian Ambassador to Mexico Pierre Alarie predicted that about 25,000 more Mexicans would travel to Canada in 2017, and within three years the numbers would increase by as much as 50,000.

Mr. Goldstein said he expects the rest of 2016 to continue the trend of strong foreign travel to Canada. Anecdotal evidence suggests August was even better than July, he said. And while people come here all year round, "summer is the make or break period" for the industry, he said.

He also noted that foreign travel by Canadians has slowed, and they are spending more on travel at home, so the domestic travel industry is also benefiting from that trend.

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