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AP Florida

Immigration bill might extend stay for Canadians

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Published:   |   Updated: July 8, 2013 at 08:11 AM

TAMPA - Marco Pozzobon lists two things about Florida that draws thousands of snowbirds and millions of tourists from Canada.

"Why Florida? First, the accessibility," said Pozzobon, who lives in Ontario, Canada. "It's easy to get there, whether you are driving or flying. Then, obviously, the weather."

The presence of Canadians in Florida - and their economic impact - is already huge. But more could visit, then settle, in the Sunshine State if Congress approves the Immigration Reform bill, which contains a provision allowing Canadian snowbirds to stay in the U.S. for most of the year.

"The whole idea emerged because a lot of our members were asking us to increase their time in the U.S.," said Evan Rachkovsky, the research officer for the Canadian Snowbird Association. "This is about added flexibility. It gives them more time to visit relatives."

Canadian snowbirds, as defined by the association, are people 55 years or older who spend 31 or more consecutive days in the U.S.

The immigration bill approved by the Senate would allow retired Canadians to get a Canadian Retiree Visa that would allow them to stay in the U.S. for up to eight months if they own a second home here or have a rental agreement or a hotel reservation to stay in the U.S.

Currently, a Canadians's stay in the U.S. is limited to six months.

The U.S. House of Representatives is working on its own immigration bill and is not following the template laid down by the Senate.

Bob Slack, president of the snowbird association, lauded the Senate for passing its bill and urged the House to do the same.

"This is a significant step in the CSA's effort to increase the length of stay for Canadian snowbirds who winter in the United States," Slack said. "We urge the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a similar bipartisan bill in a timely manner."

If a similar immigration bill passes in the House, the only hitch for Canadian snowbirds will come from their side of the border.

Most Canadian provinces allow its residents to stay in another country for seven months before their health coverage expires, Rachkovsky said.

About 500,000 Canadian snowbirds have homes in Florida, according to the BMO Financial Group, a Canadian banking and mortgage company.

A BMO study released in April showed Canadians are Florida's top foreign buyers of real estate. Out of the 500,000 Canadian snowbirds, 9 percent have bought homes in the Tampa area, 13 percent live in the Orlando area and 17 percent have homes in the Sarasota area.

In Hillsborough County, a large contingent of Canadian snowbirds live in Sun City Center. The community has a Canadian Club and a Lawn Bowling Club - a popular sport in Canada.

Pozzobon said most snowbirds leave Canada after Christmas, then return in late March. Canadian tourists visit year-round.

"In fact, I'm heading down with the family to Orlando in September," said Pozzobon, the spokesman for the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies. "The thinking is the kids will be out of school and the theme parks won't be as crowded."

Fourteen million tourists visited Tampa and Hillsborough County in 2011, with 13 percent of that number from foreign countries, according to Visit Tampa Bay, the city's tourism agency. Canadian tourists ranked at the top, followed by visitors from England, Brazil and Germany.

There were 5 million tourists who visited Pinellas County in 2012, with 335,741 from Canada, said Walter Klages of Research Data Services.

"They are a significant amount part of our market," said Klages, whose company compiles data for Pinellas County.

Canadians who visited Florida last year pumped about $4.4 billion into the state's economy, according to the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.

Klages said Canadians from Ontario typically visit the west coast of Florida while residents of Quebec visit the east coast.

Part of it is tradition, Klages said, while the other is geography. Interstate 75 is easier for Ontario residents to access; I-95 to Florida's east coast is more of a straight shot from Montreal, Klages said.

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