PORTLAND – Black Friday started in America, but Americans won’t be the only ones filling shopping bags and swiping credit cards at stores in Maine on Friday.

Canadian travel companies plan shopping tours to Maine for the Black Friday weekend. Their customers cross the border for the discounts, spend hundreds of dollars here and leave in buses packed full of shopping bags.

“It’s shop ’til you drop,” said Phyllis LeBlanc, who owns PT Tours, a New Brunswick-based company that runs shopping trips to Maine. “We are leaving Thursday morning and we will stay in South Portland (tonight), so people can go straight to the mall at 6 a.m.,” said LeBlanc.

“Boy, they shop. They drop their bags, and they’re off,” said Don Haggett, director of sales for Lafayette Hotels, which owns 21 properties in Maine.

Haggett said Canadian shoppers fill hotels at this time of year, providing an “economic boost” in an otherwise slow season for his industry. Many come for Black Friday, but the entire fall shopping season is busy.

Not all Lafayette hotels will be full this weekend. The 153-room Best Western Merry Manor Inn in South Portland was booked at about 50 percent capacity for Thanksgiving and two-thirds capacity Friday, Haggett said.

South Portland’s mall and countless chain stores make the city popular with Canadian shoppers. But Canadians also flock to Freeport and Bangor, which are closer to the border.

The Christmas Tree Shops in Augusta is also a hit. “That’s one of their first and last stops,” Haggett said.

Andrew Bailey, general manager of the 117-room Hampton Inn Portland Airport, expects his hotel to be full Friday and Saturday. And bookings for tonight are strong. Rooms cost $99 per night.

“A good portion of (guests) are Canadian,” Bailey said.

His hotel hosted about 20 Canadian tour groups this fall, an average number. But he noticed more Canadian visitors traveling by themselves.

“People are picking up and going shopping. The exchange rate on the dollar is still favorable,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Canadian dollar was nearly on par with the American dollar, yielding 98 cents.

Canadian shoppers are a boon for retailers in Maine.

“They are definitely a big part of our business. They turn up at all big events, any major sales,” said Melinda Kaufman, store manager of JCPenney at the Maine Mall.

Bart Gillespie, general manager at Best Buy in South Portland, said he “has seen a disproportionate amount of Canadian shoppers” in the last few weeks.

“You see their license plates. And walking in the mall, you hear people speaking French,” said Craig Gorris, general manager of the Maine Mall.

This morning, a PT Tours bus with 36 women left the city of Dieppe in New Brunswick, bound for South Portland. The group will stay at the Wyndham Portland Airport Hotel tonight.

After shopping Friday morning at the Maine Mall, the group will hit the Christmas Tree Shops, TJ Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory and Target. On Saturday, they’ll go to the outlet stores in Kittery. And before returning to Canada on Sunday, the bus will stop at a supermarket in Bangor for discounted turkeys.

LeBlanc, the owner of PT Tours, said Black Friday discounts make the trips worthwhile. Boots that cost $149 in Canada, for example, might cost $79 here, she said. Many travelers spend $700 to $800 during the weekend.

The Canadian government charges sales tax on items that are bought in the U.S. In New Brunswick, the rate is 13 percent. However, the first $50 is duty-free for Canadians who leave the country for more than 24 hours. The exemption jumps to $400 for shoppers who stay away 48 hours.

Reay Wallace, a tour manager for Freedom Travel in St. John, New Brunswick, said U.S. stores have better selections. “The money isn’t the draw. It is the fact that you can buy different things,” she said.

Because most Canadians work on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Freedom’s tour will leave Saturday, bound for Bangor, about a 3½-hour drive. It’s a one-day trip, and the 52-seat bus will be full, mostly with women.

“They start at dark and return at dark,” Wallace said.

The shopping tours are about more than discounts, tax breaks and better selections of merchandise. They’re also a chance for the travelers to laugh and joke and have fun with old friends.

“There is camaraderie on the bus,” said Kelly Burns of Kelly’s Travel and Tours of Moncton, New Brunswick, which operates shopping tours throughout October. “We have a lot of repeat gals.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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