Bellingham to serve as launch pad for Canadian travel to Reno

Bellingham and Whatcom County have enjoyed a number of economic benefits from Canadian visitors. Now, Reno, Nev., wants its share.

When the first departure in Allegiant Air’s renewed Bellingham-Reno service leaves on Thursday, June 6, it will culminate a yearlong lobbying effort by Reno business leaders and tourism officials for new flights connecting northern Nevada with a lucrative travel market in Vancouver, British Columbia.

To reach that market, Bellingham will be the front door.

“We’re trying to add as many elements as we can to this program, because this is a very strong market, and it’s proven to be a strong market for the Reno-Tahoe destination,” said Ronele Klingensmith, project manager for the Reno-Tahoe Regional Marketing Committee.

Canadians have been using the Bellingham International Airport for years to take low-cost flights to destinations such as Las Vegas, Southern California, and even Hawaii. The airport’s fast growth over the past decade can, in large part, be attributed to its ability to attract travelers from up north.

This cross-border migration, which is driven mainly by cheaper ticket prices available in U.S. airports, is not confined to Whatcom County. Coast to coast, an estimated 4.8 million Canadians in 2011 opted to skip their hometown airports and drive south, according to the Canadian Airports Council, a trade group.

Many times, buying tickets at American airports instead of Canadian ones can save travelers hundreds of dollars.

On Alaska Airlines, the only carrier that serves both Bellingham and Vancouver, British Columbia, a one-way flight from Bellingham to Las Vegas can be up to $200 cheaper—depending on the day and time of travel—than the same route out of Vancouver, according to the airline’s website.

At Bellingham’s airport, the new stream of passengers has been a windfall, leading to new business growth and expansion in its commercial terminal. However, noise from the greater number of jets flying over neighborhoods nearby has upset a number of residents and remains controversial.

Residents and business owners opposed to the added air traffic believe increased jet noise will lower their property values and disrupt the character of neighborhoods surrounding the airport. A citizens’ group called Reduce Jet Noise formed last year to oppose the airport’s expansion.

But airlines are taking advantage of the growing number of travelers that fly out of Bellingham, and some leave little doubt that the city’s airport serves primarily as an entry point to the Canadian market.

One carrier, Frontier Airlines, which began seasonal flights to Denver in 2012, identifies Bellingham as the “Bellingham/Vancouver area” on its website.

But while access to Canadians is a primary reason more airlines are arriving in Whatcom County, officials with the Port of Bellingham, which operates the city’s airport, say local travelers also reap gains.

“The local community obviously benefits from additional destinations that Bellingham offers,” said Dan Zenk, the port’s aviation director. “That added benefit not only trickles down to Bellingham residents but also to residents to the south.”

The Allegiant Travel Company, which owns Allegiant Air, places heavy emphasis on Bellingham, more so than when it first arrived in the city in 2004, said Jessica Wheeler, a company spokesperson.

While initially operating service only to Allegiant’s main hub in Las Vegas, today the airline offers flights from Bellingham to 11 destinations on the West Coast and in Hawaii.

“From the Allegiant perspective, we’re really going after the Canadians who come across the border,” Wheeler said. “But I think certainly Bellingham is a sizable city with lots of area around it with residents who want to have access to low-cost travel options.”

The new Bellingham-Reno flights will run twice per week, with round-trips scheduled for Thursdays and Sundays. One-way fares are expected to start at about $70, according to Allegiant, excluding taxes and additional charges for baggage and priority boarding.

The flights are expected to run year-round, Wheeler said.

Allegiant has operated the route before, but chose to discontinue the flights in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession, citing decreased passenger levels and unsustainable operating costs.

Reno businesses hope the service renewal will provide a boost to tourism in their city.

While Reno’s casinos have historically played a major role in attracting visitors and continue to do so today, tourism promoters are now also emphasizing the city’s outdoor recreation options, as well as its affordable lodging and entertainment in an effort to set Reno apart from its glitzier cousin, Las Vegas, said Klingensmith of the Reno-Tahoe Regional Marketing Committee.

The tourism industry, fueled largely by casinos and gambling, moves Reno’s—and Nevada’s—economy like no other. The state takes in about $50 billion annually from tourism-related activities, said Bethany Drysdale, public-relations director for the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Recently, hotels in the state have begun seeing a turnaround after suffering through lousy business years during the recession, Drysdale said. Today, while visitor spending has not returned to the level it was at prior to 2008, tourism in Nevada is making a comeback, she said.

“Tourism is very much the number one industry in Nevada,” Drysdale said. “It’s the primary driver.”

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com

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