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Bringing the Canadians back to DL

Canadian travelers have always enjoyed the benefits of the United States, but now with the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar about the same exchange rate, this is the perfect time to welcome Canadian visitors with even wider open arms.

"What we're trying to create is a 200-mile welcome mat," Explore Minnesota Tourism representative David Bergman said of getting Canadians to come to the area. And particularly to bypass the bigger areas like Fargo and Grand Forks and come to the smaller, resort towns like Thief River Falls and Detroit Lakes.

Area business owners and representatives gathered Thursday morning to hear firsthand from Canadian Ed Zamkotowich, of EZ Marketing in Canada, what it takes to get the Canadians back in Detroit Lakes.

"There is something about going to the States that is very exciting," he said. "We will drive four hours for coffee, but the main attraction is shopping. And we like bargains."

He said back when the Detroit Lakes area was called Little Canada and the exchange rate was only about 56 percent, not in the Canadians' favor, Canadians flocked to the area because they were still able to find bargains.

Now with the dollar about even, and a 12 percent tax in Canada, Minnesota's zero percent tax on clothing is a huge draw. And rising gas prices don't seem to matter much either, he said, adding that gasoline prices are about the same in the United States and Canada.

"Gas prices do not deter us much," he said.

While shopping is the main draw, he added that Canadians will obviously do and spend much more while in the area with restaurants, lodging and outdoor activities for example.

"We just have a blast coming to the United States."

He said with Grand Forks and Fargo always being the No. 1 and No. 2 destination spots for Canadians, forming an initiative to get Canadians further south is a great plan and "about time."

So how do we get them here? Promotion.

"All you have to do to get Canadians is invite them," he said.

And regardless of the business, every dollar that comes into town benefits the community and therefore every business should be promoted. For example, he said, while Wal-Mart may not participate financially in advertising to getting Canadians here, it's still a big draw. Canada has Wal-Mart, but they sell different products than the U.S. stores, he said.

Using those big box retailers to draw the Canadians in -- Canada also doesn't have JCPenney and Kmart, he said -- to town will bring money to the smaller, non-chain businesses in town as well.

Coupons can go a long way too. Zamkotowich used the example of Gordmans printing a coupon for 15 percent off in a Canadian newspaper. Gordmans invested $2,000 in advertising and got a return of $50,000 in revenue specifically from the Canadians using that coupon.

And now that duty-free restrictions have been relaxed, it makes shopping easier as well. Each person in the car is allowed to bring $400 worth of purchases back into Canada after a 48-hour time period, or $750 for a week.

"No Canadian I know goes back with extra money," he said.

And it's not just the smaller clothing items. If Canadians can get a deal, he said, they'll come to the United States for larger products like lumber, pole barns, vehicles and watercraft and pay the duty at the border.

"It's not that we're not loyal to Canada, we're just adventurous," he said of making the trip to the United States.

Casinos are also a large draw. People, and especially seniors, come by the busload to gamble. Zamkotowich said casinos know how to promote themselves well.

Once the Canadian visitors are here, customer service is what will keep them coming back, said University of Minnesota Extension Service representative Ryan Pesch.

Along with good customer service, business people need to decide how to handle Canadian cash. Northwest Minnesota Foundation's Nancy Vyskocil said businesses need to decide whether or not they will accept Canadian money and then train their staff.

"Plan ahead, be prepared," she advised. "It's not that hard. It's just harder with someone standing across from you, and you're feeling dumb."

Although Zamkotowich didn't have any up-to-date figures, in 1992, he said Minnesota brought in $49 million from Canadians. North Dakota brought in $56 million.

"Now with the exchange rate, they're flocking here," he said.

In order to get Canadian visitors off Highway 75 and onto Highway 59 to the lakes area, he said communities need to band together, contact the tourism office and invite Canadians to this area.

Highway 75 enters the United States near Pembina, N.D., at Interstate 29. The Highway 59 port is at Lancaster, Minn.

Security has become increasingly tight since 9-11. Port director at the Roseau crossing with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Jerome Hicks said it's as simple as a passport book or passport card to cross over.

Oral identification is no longer enough to pass from country to country, and although there isn't necessarily a threat of harm, Hicks said the security measures are to prevent that harm in the future.

In the last three months of 2007 alone, the border patrol stopped 1,500 people with improper identification.

Before the change to passport books and cards, Hicks said people could present 8,000 different types of identification. That's a lot for border patrol to be able to distinguish if false or not.

When traveling by air to any country, a passport book is required for anyone of any age. But by ground travel into Canada, he said for children age 18 and under, a birth certificate is fine.