WASHINGTON — Florida already is the top destination for Canadian snowbirds, and more could flock to the Sunshine State soon.
Tucked into the massive immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate is a provision that would allow retirees from Canada to stay up to eight months in the United States — two months longer than current law allows.
Realtors, tourism officials and lawmakers say the change could provide a tremendous boost to the Florida economy still recovering from the Great Recession.
“That’s a 30 percent increase in the potential amount that Canadians could spend on everything from accommodations to dining and grocery stores,” said Will Seccombe, president and CEO for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation. “When you get a long length of stay, it has exponential impacts in spending throughout the entire community.”
In 2012, Canadians made nearly 4 million visits to Florida and spent about $4.4 billion, according to the Canadian embassy in Washington. Canadian visitors represent about a third of all foreign tourists to Florida, Seccombe said.
Tourism is worth $2.7 billion and $1.3 billion in Lee and Collier counties, respectively. More than 500,000 international visitors, including 122,175 Canadians, visited Lee County in 2011, according to the latest statistics from the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The immigration provision, sponsored by New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, would allow retired Canadians 55 or older to get a Canadian Retiree Visa allowing them to stay in the United States up to eight months if they own a second home in the U.S. or they have a rental agreement or hotel reservation.
More than 500,000 Canadians own property in Florida, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association. Tens of thousands more rent.
Nine percent of Canadians who own real estate in Florida have property in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro region, the fourth-highest concentration in the state, according to Toronto-based BMO Financial Group.
Denny Grimes with Royal Shell Real Estate said he expects the extra two months would help convince on-the-fence Canadians who rent in Lee and Collier counties to seriously consider buying.
That would boost a region hard hit by the housing downturn of recent years, he said.
“It would not change the trajectory of our market overnight, but it would be a step in the right direction,” Grimes said.
He said having Canadians stay longer also would benefit other sectors of the local economy.
“The whole bit — restaurants, retails and resorts,” he said. “The beaches, and gas stations — everything. The ripple effect of their presence is phenomenal. Plus, somebody had to build the house that they’re living in. And our main business here in Southwest Florida is construction.”
Canadian citizens do not need visas to visit the U.S., but their stay is limited to six months minus one day (generally 182 days) within any 12-month period. That means Canadians who head to popular destinations in Arizona, California, Florida or Texas at the beginning of November need to get back home by late April.
“A lot of people want to stay longer,” Bob Slack, president of the Canadian Snowbird Association said. “They’d like seven months if they can.”
The Canadian government didn’t ask for the measure, according to embassy spokesman Chris Plunkett.
“But we certainly support anything that can improve trade and tourism between Canada and the U.S.,” he said.
The impetus for the change came from the Canadian Snowbird Association based in Toronto, which estimates snowbirds made 1.08 million trips to the U.S. in 2011. The association defines a snowbird as someone 55 or over who spends 31 or more consecutive days in the U.S.
Canadians already are the largest group of foreigners who purchase homes in the United States. They accounted for 24 percent of international investors in U.S. real estate in 2012, according to the National Association of Realtors.