WILDWOOD, N.J. - Before she left Quebec with family and friends to vacation at the Jersey Shore, Sophie Campeau-Lapierre envisioned seeing many fellow Canadians there.
That was not the case earlier this month during a 51/2-day stay in Wildwood Crest. Visits by Canadians to the Jersey Shore have been curtailed this year by the falling loonie - Canada's currency - against the U.S. dollar, experts say.
"We only heard one or two families" speaking French, Campeau-Lapierre, 33, said as she and her group of friends and relatives frolicked on the beach. "We speak French - the only practical way we can recognize each other."
July and August are peak summer months for Canadians at the Shore, particularly in Cape May County, whose annual tourism industry reached $5.8 billion in 2014. Retail accounted for about 20 percent of that, said Diane Wieland, the county's director of tourism.
Drawn by the area's beaches, Canadians make up 11 percent of overnight stays in July and August.
Last week the loonie was worth about 76 cents U.S., down from 91 cents this time last year.
Wieland said that, over the last five years, hotels and stores in Cape May County saw a growing number of "new" Canadian families coming there to vacation, many for the first time.
"This past summer the number of 'new' Canadian visitors fell by about 25 percent," she said. "While we saw many Quebec license plates, we did not see as many as we have in the past few years. It was also noted that we didn't hear as many French-speaking shoppers in the grocery stores this year."
Wieland said the currency exchange rate shortened some stays by Canadian families.
"Canadians tend to stay 7 to 10 days during the summer," she said. "This year, many had cut their vacations short to offset the loss in the value of the dollar. Those who came made it work with a 25 percent cut in their budget."
Wieland and others are concerned because the ripple effect of shorter vacations often leads to less shopping, and fewer visits to restaurants and local attractions.
The county tourism agency said a pattern emerged this year with more looking for value-oriented options. The free Cape May County Park & Zoo saw increased crowds this summer that included more Canadians.
Diane Ranelli, whose family owns the Water's Edge Ocean Resort at 5600 Beach Ave. (where Campeau-Lapierre and her party stayed), said she has noticed at least a 30 percent drop in Canadians checking into the hotel this summer.
"You could see it at the front desk," Ranelli said. "I didn't see some of my regulars who have come here for years."
Many merchants at Ocean Towers Shops, an outdoor mall on the Wildwood boardwalk, have felt the decrease, as well.
"They love the jewelry - Brighton and Pandora [brands]," said Roseann Damico, a sales associate at Marcellina, an upscale women's clothing and accessories boutique at Ocean Towers.
Because Marcellina sits in an Urban Enterprise Zone, Damico said, the sales tax there is 3.5 percent, vs. 7 percent for the state overall. "They spend a lot of money when they're here," she said of Canadians. "But we're not seeing as many."
Michael Busler, a professor of finance at Stockton University, said that, aside from the Canadian drop-off, most of the southern Jersey Shore was seeing a very good summer season and will meet an expected 4 percent to 5 percent increase in revenue this year.
"The devalued Canadian dollar has had a negative effect, mostly in the Cape May/Wildwood area, which typically draws a large Canadian group," he said. But "business in Wildwood and Cape May appears to be as strong, or perhaps stronger, than the rest of the Jersey Shore."
"If the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar are about equal, then a $200 room cost 200 Canadian dollars," Busler said. But with the Canadian dollar worth just 75 U.S. cents, "a $200 room will cost 267 Canadian dollars.
"That, coupled with the poor performance in the first half of this year for the general Canadian economy, which is close to recession, meant that fewer Canadians have visited this year," Busler said.
Among the ways Campeau-Lapierre and her group - boyfriend, Eric Lapointe, 33; best friend, Genevieve Chasse, 34; Chasse's boyfriend, Martin Roy, 36; and the couples' children - saved money while vacationing here was renting a two-bedroom suite that sleeps 10 people, at $390 a night, with a full kitchen, and cooking virtually all of their meals. She said they went out to eat only once, for dinner.
They didn't shop for souvenirs, or hop on any amusement park rides.
"Surely, it's not helping," Campeau-Lapierre said of the current exchange rate. "Because it's more expensive to vacation."
She said the two families went to Old Orchard Beach in Maine last summer when the loonie was better.
Still, they had a good time in Jersey - mostly taking in one free activity: Beach tags aren't required in the Wildwoods.
"The weather has been perfect," Martin Roy said as he played catch with his 5-year old son, Theo. "We've been to the beach every day.
"Next year, if the loonie is better, we plan to stay longer."