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Hit the road (and the skies, and the ships ...)

Despite the economic crunch, Prairie people lead nation in planning their summer getaways

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The Canadian economy isn’t bouncing back as quickly as hoped, gas prices remain high and federal officials continue to fret about rising consumer debt loads.

It sounds like the perfect backdrop for Canadians to scale back their summer vacation plans for this year. But if that’s the case, someone forgot to tell some of the folks here in Manitoba.

Retired insurance industry executive Michael Leipsic and his wife, Helene, are taking their five grandchildren on a one-week trip to Israel later this month. And Helene and her son, Chris Compton, plan to stay an extra week and take a side trip to Turkey.

"This has been planned for about 18 months," Michael Leipsic said, "and the summer was the only time they could get everybody together to do it."  

Leipsic said the timing was also right because two of their grandchildren — twins Rachael and Serena Buchwald — will be celebrating their b’nai mitzvah while there.

And the Leipsics aren’t the only Manitobans with big summer vacation plans.

Mary Jane Hiebert, general manager of Steinbach’s Holiday Travel Inc. and Manitoba’s representative on the board of directors of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents (ACTA), said Holiday Travel has seen a 15-per-cent increase this summer in the number of Manitobans taking European vacations this summer.

Hiebert said she knows of another local man and his wife who are taking their four children on a jaunt across Europe at a cost of about $25,000.

"They said they want to make it a family vacation to remember," Hiebert added.

Philip Houde, owner of River East Travel in Winnipeg and a past vice-chair of ACTA, said he’s also noticed Manitobans are getting more adventurous when it comes to choosing their vacation destinations.

South Africa and South America are becoming increasingly popular international destinations, Houde said, and Quebec and the wine-growing regions of British Columbia and Ontario are gaining in popularity as domestic destinations.

"There’s also a growing demand for river cruises in Europe, Asia and southern Africa," he added.

A recent summer-travel survey conducted for the Bank of Montreal also found more respondents from Manitoba and Saskatchewan are planning to take a summer vacation this year than almost anywhere else — 92 per cent versus 83 per cent for Canada as a whole.

The Prairie respondents also indicated, on average, they expect to spend almost twice as much as anyone else — an extravagant $6,030 versus the national average of $3,073.

A BMO spokesperson said an unusually high number of Prairie respondents said they plan to spend between $5,000 and $9,999 —  23 per cent versus the national average of 14 per cent.

Hiebert thinks there are a number of reasons why more Manitobans are splurging on European vacations this summer. One is the weather.

"We’ve had such a lousy spring... and people have become frustrated with that," she said.

"People are also more adventurous. They want to see something different. It’s also a beautiful time of the year to go. And it’s more affordable now — there is so much competition out there."
She said the types of people heading to Europe this summer span the spectrum.

"We have singles, we have couples, we have families, we have choir groups and school groups. We even have women who want to travel as a group. That is becoming very popular."
Leipsic said some European tour companies are also offering enticing bargains, which is why he and others he knows are planning overseas trips.

While some Manitobans are vacationing farther afield this summer, there are plenty of others who are staying closer to home.

For example, June bookings are up this year at the Elkhorn Resort, Spa and Conference Centre in Riding Mountain National Park.

"And July and August are looking good,"  general manager Chris Phillips added. "A lot of the weekends are sold out."

While the resort attracts visitors from as far away as Europe, Phillips said most usually come from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This year is no exception.

Most people who are planning road trips don’t usually go through a travel agent, so it’s harder to get a handle on how many Manitobans might be hitting the road this summer.

However, CAA Manitoba spokesperson Liz Peters said member feedback indicates the United States will be a popular destination again this summer for many Manitoba road warriors. And places like the Black Hills in South Dakota and Wisconsin Dells, which bills itself as the water-park capital of the world, are near the top of the list.

"People are also going in both directions in Canada. But we tend to see more people going west because it’s an easier trip and there are lots of stops along the way," she said.

Peters and Marina James, the CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, said higher gasoline prices aren’t likely to deter most vacationers from taking a road trip this summer.

"I think people may not like it, but they’ll go anyway," James said.

A spokesman for a local recreational vehicle dealer — Can Am Recreational Vehicles — also said it had no trouble finding takers for the seven RVs it has available for rent this summer.

"The rental side has always been good here in Canada," general manager Shane Lochman said. "We’re fully booked right now until the middle of September. Gas prices really don’t seem to be scaring anybody off."

As for how many tourists might be coming to Manitoba this summer, the Conference Board of Canada has predicted overnight visits to the province will increase by 2.6 per cent to 3.6 million this year, and tourism spending will grow by 5.1 per cent to $1.14 billion.

It forecasts an increase in both domestic and overseas visitors, but little or no change in the number of U.S. overnight visitors to the province.

"You have to remember we have additional shopping (attractions) this year," James said, adding the new IKEA store alone is expected to draw an estimated 250,000 visitors this year to Winnipeg.

"And the Forks is still... a great place to visit."

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