Every fall, Canadian snowbirds Lyle Pederson and his wife make the trek to Arizona, trading the bitter cold for sunny skies.
This year, they stayed a little longer, returning north in May. And while they plan to come back this fall, the 180-day limit for Canadian snowbirds to stay in the United States each year means the Pedersons are counting their days, and carefully.
“It’s an issue for all the Canadian snowbirds who go down to Arizona in the winter,” Lyle Pederson said.
Fortunately for them, a provision tucked in the immigration-reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate would allow many Canadian retirees to stay south of their border up to 60 days longer per year — a total of 240 days rather than 180 days.
Arizona tourism and economic officials have lauded the provision, which was incorporated into the bill’s Jobs Originating Through Launching Travel Act, to ostensibly boost travel and tourism to the United States.
With its balmy winters and affordable housing, Arizona has one of the largest markets for overnight stays among Canadian travelers, tourism officials say.
In 2012, Arizona ranked third, after Florida and California, in the number of nights that Canadians spent in the state, according to data from Statistics Canada.
Extending the time for Canadians to stay, shop and dine here means more dollars flowing into Arizona’s economy, not to mention the extra tax-related revenue for the state and local governments, according to state tourism officials.
“Any opportunity that makes it possible for visitors to extend their stay in Arizona is always going to be good for our state,” said Kiva Couchon, spokeswoman for the Arizona Office of Tourism.
In 2011, Canadians spent an estimated $816 million in Arizona, said Evan Rachkovsky, a research officer for the Canadian Snowbird Association.
Nearly 704,000 Canadians spent an average of $1,126 per visit during that year, according to the most current figures from the Arizona Office of Tourism.
The impact of the provision on the state’s economic well-being “would be phenomenal,” Rachkovsky said.
“It’s hard to see any downside to letting snowbirds spend more time in the country,” said Pederson, who operates websites for snowbirds and promotes RV resort parks in the Southwest.
For some Canadians, the big issue “is not so much wanting to spend more than six months in Arizona but wanting or needing some days to allow for summer travel to and through the U.S.,” Pederson said.
There are drawbacks. As it stands now, some Canadians would lose their provincial health coverage if they stayed in the United States longer than six months a year, said Dale Walters, a partner and chief executive officer of KeatsConnelly, a wealth-management firm for Canadians and Americans that has offices in Arizona, Florida and Calgary, Alberta.
“Basically, there are different rules depending on what province you live in,” Walters said.
The Toronto-based Canadian Snowbird Association has successfully lobbied British Columbia and Manitoba to extend the limit on their residents to seven months, from six months, Rachkovsky said.
Residents from those provinces, as well as from Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, can be away for longer than six months and retain health benefits, he said.
Meanwhile, residents of Alberta — who logged the most visits to Arizona out of all Canadians in 2011 — are still limited to half a year.
The Canadian Snowbird Association is lobbying officials in Alberta to change that, Rachkovsky said.
Under current language, only Canadian citizens age 55 or older and their spouses would be eligible for the extension.
They would have to maintain a Canadian residence and own or rent a U.S. residence, according to the legislation.
Arizona tourism officials say that the positives would far outweigh any negatives.
In Scottsdale, which relies heavily on tourism for tax dollars, Canadians make up the largest international-visitor market, said Rachel Pearson, vice president of community and government affairs for the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Senate’s legislation “would provide a wonderful opportunity for additional Canadian visitors to come to Scottsdale, as well as keep many of our current visitors in Arizona longer,” Pearson said.
In 2011, more than 14 percent of all overnight Canadian visitors stayed in Arizona for at least 31 days.
Glenn Williamson, founder and chief executive of the Canada Arizona Business Council, called the provision “a great thing for Arizona and Canadians that want to spend more time in the state.”
“During the recession, Canadians were the largest international group buying houses in the state,” he said. “Now that it has slowed down, they are going to want to use them, more especially to come down and go to the hockey games.”