Greg Wisner and Carol Strader stand near a Canadian flag at Ameri-Cana Resorts. They are on the Board of Directors at the park. About a quarter of the 417 families living at the Ameri-Cana Resort mobile home park on U.S. 1 just north of Pineda Causeway are Canadian, according to Strader, treasurer for the park's board of directors. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY
WASHINGTON (Florida Today) -- Florida already is the top destination for Canadian snowbirds, and more could flock to the Sunshine State soon.
Tucked into the massive immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate is a provision that would allow retirees from Canada to stay up to eight months in the United States -- two months longer than current law allows.
Realtors, tourism officials and lawmakers say the change could provide a tremendous boost to the Florida economy still recovering from the Great Recession.
"That's a 30 percent increase in the potential amount that Canadians could spend on everything from accommodations to dining and grocery stores," said Will Seccombe, president and CEO for VISIT FLORIDA, the state's official tourism marketing corporation. "When you get a long length of stay, it has exponential impacts in spending throughout the entire community."
In 2012, Canadians made nearly 4 million visits to Florida and spent about $4.4 billion, according to the Canadian embassy in Washington. Canadian visitors represent about a third of all foreign tourists to Florida, Seccombe said.
The immigration provision, sponsored by New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, would allow retired Canadians 55 or older to get a Canadian Retiree Visa allowing them to stay in the United States up to eight months if they own a second home in the U.S. or they have a rental agreement or hotel reservation.
More than 500,000 Canadians own property in Florida -- more than any other state -- according to the Canadian Snowbird Association. Tens of thousands more rent.
Canadian citizens do not need visas to visit the U.S., but their stay is limited to six months minus one day (generally 182 days) within any 12-month period. That means Canadians who head to popular destinations in Arizona, California, Florida or Texas at the beginning of November need to get back home by late April.
"A lot of people want to stay longer,'' Bob Slack, president of the Canadian Snowbird Association said. "They'd like seven months if they can.''
The Canadian government didn't ask for the measure, according to embassy spokesman Chris Plunkett.
"But we certainly support anything that can improve trade and tourism between Canada and the U.S.,'' he said.
The impetus for the change came from the Canadian Snowbird Association based in Toronto, which estimates snowbirds made 1.08 million trips to the U.S. in 2011. The association defines a snowbird as someone 55 or over who spends 31 or more consecutive days in the U.S.
Steve Romano, a real estate broker in Cocoa Beach with RE/MAX Elite, said poor exchange rates often deter Canadians from buying second homes along the Space Coast.
"But a big part of it (also) was the fact that because they were only allowed here so much time, they couldn't justify the outlay of money," he said. Adding two months, he said, would help the second-home market, "no doubt about it."
Canadians already are the largest group of foreigners who purchase homes in the United States. They accounted for 24 percent of international investors in U.S. real estate in 2012, according to the National Association of Realtors.
But letting Canadians stay longer wouldn't automatically boost sales because of other factors, experts and advocates say.
Snowbirds want Canadian provinces to relax restrictions requiring them to spend at least six months of every year at home in order to qualify for national health insurance.
Only one of Canada's 10 provinces -- Newfoundland and Labrador -- allows eight months abroad without losing health coverage. Three others -- Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba -- permit a maximum seven months out of the country.
Snowbirds also want a change in U.S. tax laws that would let Canadians who spend up to eight months in the U.S. avoid paying income tax here, but Schumer does not plan to pursue that.
Then there's the pull of family north of the border.
About a quarter of the 417 families living at the Ameri-Cana Resort mobile home park on U.S. 1 just north of Pineda Causeway are Canadian, according to Carol Strader, treasurer for the park's board of directors.
She thinks the Canadian residents would appreciate being able to stay longer. Whether they would is another matter, she said.
"They're only going to come down for a certain amount of time so they can go up and see them grandkids," Strader said.
Jesse "Jay" Parrish III, president of the Space Coast Realtors, said he hopes the extension is granted.
"There's definitely a change in the economy when the Canadians leave," he said. "And it's not a happy change."