Canadian tourists have been flocking to Dairy Belle in Dania Beach all winter. It's a popular destination for visitors from the north. (Michael Laughlin, Sun Sentinel / January 10, 2013)
If he could, he surely would. Jacques Belair, a Montreal native, would live the rest of his life in South Florida.
"This is paradise,'' he said without hesitation from his Deerfield Beach condominium.
He's certainly not alone in making the trek south from Canada for the winter. As the February peak period for snowbird arrivals nears, South Florida is getting a bigger-than-usual boost from visitors leaving the cold behind, bank and tourism executives said.
More Canadians are heading south because of a "perfect storm.'' Canadian baby boomers can find great real estate deals in Florida and the strong Canadian dollar buys more in the U.S. than it could in recent years, said Alain Forget, RBC Bank's head of sales and business development. They're buying homes, enjoying the beach, having nice meals.
Simply put, they love being here.
"They want the lifestyle, they are on vacation, so they go around and shop around," said Forget. "They find everything they can buy here is so cheap."
Canadians are the No. 1 international visitors to Florida and the largest foreign buyers of second homes in the state, according to Florida government data. The latest available year-end data shows 3.3 million Canadians visited the state in 2011, up 7 percent from 2010. They spent about $4 billion, up nearly 14 percent from the year before, said Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency.
Belair chooses to spent at least six months in his homeland and only November through April at his Deerfield Beach condominium so he can keep his Canadian health-care benefits. The 65-year-old tennis aficionado recently spent thousands of dollars upgrading his condo to "mint condition," he said..
All told, snowbirds from Canada and elsewhere spend more than $2 billion in Broward and Palm Beach counties each year, according to the county visitors bureaus.
In Broward, about 500,000 snowbirds visited last year, spending about $1 billion. This winter season, their spending should rise about 2 percent, said Jessica Savage, spokeswoman for Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In Palm Beach County, snowbirds spend about $1.4 billion per year, the visitors bureau said.
That money helps business owners like Sam Kantzavelos. His Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Greek Islands Taverna on Los Olas Boulevard, sees about a 30 percent rise in sales during winter months when snowbirds are in town. He sees a lot of Canadians this winter.
"It's affordable for them to come down," Kantzavelos said. "We lost more Europeans (this winter because of financial problems in Europe) but we got more Canadians."
In Dania Beach, owners of the Dairy Belle Ice Cream restaurant are investing about $3 million to expand facilities to serve such French-Canadian favorites as poutine, which features cheese curds and brown gravy on top of french fries. They've seen business rise about 20 percent annually in recent years, said co-owner Francois Grenier, and they see many Canadian tourists every day.
"We expect this season is going to be the biggest and most impressive that we've ever seen. It's just crazy busy," said Grenier, whose business got a boost from recent TV coverage in Canada.
Real estate businesses also are benefiting. Many Canadians are buying second homes inDelray Beach, Boca Raton and Highland Beach, according to Senada Adzem, director of the Douglas Elliman real estate company in Florida. She sells mainly multimillion-dollar properties, often to customers buying near the homes of their Canadian friends and family.
"They just fall in love with our weather and lifestyle," Adzem said.
Many more Canadians are buying less expensive condos. Belair said the French Alliance club of French speakers in his condo community, mainly people from Quebec, saw its membership rise about 16 percent last year. A key lure: warm weather.
"I'm just enjoying life here," said Belair. "Try surviving in minus 20 degrees."