NACO, Ariz (Reuters) - Canadian retiree Penny Macdonald and husband Stew have spent winters in the United States for 25 years, but never before have vacations been such good value for "snowbirds" flocking to trailer parks across America's sunbelt.
Settled for the season into the Turquoise Valley Golf Course and RV Park in their luxury motorhome, Macdonald takes note of how a weak U.S. dollar has made life richer for the thousands of Canadians who routinely spend winters in America.
"There's a lot of taxes on liquor and gas in Canada, so it has always been cheaper in the United States, but now with the strong (Canadian) dollar it's even more so," said Macdonald, who migrated from her home in Ontario to Naco, just a stone's throw from the Mexican border, in her bus-sized motorhome.
Across Arizona, Texas and Florida -- all traditional hotspots for wintering Canadian retirees -- the story is similar, according to tourist authorities and owners of popular motorhome parks and hotels that host visitors during the mild southern months from November through April.
"It seems that every third person through the door is a Canadian," said Deborah Ireland, of the chamber of commerce in Quartzsite, a Mojave desert town west of Phoenix whose population swells from a few thousand to more than a million in the winter months.
At the heart of the surge has been a 17.5 percent rise in the Canadian currency against the U.S. dollar in 2007, taking the so-called Canadian "loonie" to a modern-day high near $1.10 in November. It was the first time in more than three decades that the Canadian currency was worth more than the U.S. dollar. The currencies have since settled near parity.
Motorhome parks are even turning away many visitors who haven't booked ahead to reserve a site.
"It's turning into a record year for Canadians," said Angelina Masales, Quartzsite's executive director of tourism. "Unfortunately, if they haven't made their reservations ahead of time, there aren't enough places for them to park."
Canadian Bruce Cook, 64, and his wife, Dana, 62, still have a four-day drive before they reach their destination in Casa Grande, Arizona, but they were wise enough to book months ahead to secure a site for the RV they're towing behind their truck.
"This was back in September, and there were only two sites left. They filled up fast. That's quite a bit different than last year, where the park we were at was only three-quarters full all year," said Cook as he stopped for lunch at a highway rest area near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Prices at RV parks have soared along with demand. Cook said the park he stayed at last year wanted $1,250 for the month of February -- $700 more than last year. They found another park nearby with lower prices.
Still, while campground prices are higher, Cook said he was feeling very good about the vacation, considering the strength of the Canadian dollar.
"I don't remember the last time our dollar was worth more than the American dollar, and it kind of makes you feel a bit better," Cook said. "There are a few things I want to buy -- I want a new camera."
The strength of the Canadian dollar means not only a surge in tourist numbers, but longer stays as well.
Lawrence Barker, the executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association, said many retirees maybe be able to extend their stay to six months, from the usual three or four.
"My sense is that some are definitely looking at going longer," said Barker, executive director of the Toronto-based nonprofit advocacy group. "Or, alternatively, because they have more disposable dollars, they can eat out more, take advantage of local attractions."
Back in Naco, the combination of a strong Canadian dollar and falling U.S. house prices -- not to mention the allure of emerald green golf fairways and warm winter weather -- has snowbirds Penny and Stew Macdonald considering more than a longer stay.
Maybe, said Stu, it's time to cash out on their 100- year-old home in Ontario and buy a place in Arizona, making their migration more permanent.
"There's never been a better time to do it, so it sets you thinking," said Stew.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati, Ohio; Editing by Eddie Evans