The number of Canadians traveling into Whatcom County rose significantly in the first quarter of 2013, even as the Canadian dollar weakened slightly in the past year.
Last quarter more than 3.6 million people traveled southbound through Whatcom County's five border crossings, a 10.2 percent increase compared to the first three months of 2012, according to data collected by Western Washington University's Center for Economic and Business Research.
March was a particularly busy month, with nearly 1.4 million people traveling southbound into Whatcom County.
The rise was a bit surprising to Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry. He had thought that a potential slowdown in the British Columbia economy would lead to fewer southbound border crossings. Also, the Canadian dollar was usually slightly above parity compared to the U.S. dollar in the first three months of 2012; in the past three months the Canadian dollar was usually slightly below parity.
"What we might be seeing now is a more broad-based rebound in border crossings from the days of the 63-cent dollar and 9/11," Oplinger said, referring to the weak Canadian dollar and the terrorist attacks nearly 12 years ago that led to less border traffic. He also noted that the significant population increase in British Columbia, particularly in the Surrey and Fraser Valley area, could be a factor.
March appeared to be a big vacation month for Canadians. Along with the increase in border traffic, the Bellingham International Airport, a popular travel option for Canadians, set a new passenger record. Last month 61,402 people flew out of the airport, topping the previous record of 55,407 set in July 2012, according to data compiled by the Port of Bellingham.
Port officials took the unusual step last month of asking local residents to consider being dropped off at the airport because many of the nearby parking lots were full.
The increase in the number of flights out of the airport, as well as large Whatcom County retailers better catering to the Canadian market, also are reasons for more border traffic, said Hart Hodges, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research.
Looking ahead, Hodges doesn't expect the Canadian economy to slow significantly relative to the U.S. economy. Oplinger added that even if the B.C. economy slows, Canadians may continue to shop in Whatcom County because they could still save money on the staple products, such as food and gas.