Is Niagara Falls ours to discover — even during COVID-19?

With the border still closed and people sticking closer to home, one of the province’s major tourist hubs is looking to sell itself as an appealing domestic destination
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jul 09, 2020
A new campaign spearheaded by Niagara Falls Tourism highlights safety and sanitization measures in place at popular attractions. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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As businesses in the province reopen, politicians and industry leaders in Niagara Falls are trying to find ways for the international-travel destination’s hard-hit tourism sector to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions during the normally busy summer season. 

“Everyone's anxious to do whatever they can to get us back on our feet again and stop the bleeding,” says Vince Kerrio, a Niagara Falls city councillor and hotelier. “We kind of have our hands full just getting open and following all the rules and guidelines and keeping our staff safe and keeping our guests safe.”

On top of the cost of implementing safety measures, such as physical distancing and increased cleaning, the absence of international tourists continues to be a problem for bottom lines. The Canada-United States border will remain closed until at least July 21, and a mandatory quarantine is in effect for anyone who enters the country. Normally, Ontarians account for 70 per cent of the 14 million tourists who visit Niagara Falls each year, and Americans — who provide about 50 per cent of the city’s tourism revenue — make up about 25 per cent.

As many Ontarians stow their passports and look to vacation within the province due to travel restrictions, Niagara and its tourism industry have set their sights on attracting domestic visitors. In June, the Ontario government announced it would loan $25 million to the Niagara Parks Commission to revamp a Niagara Falls heritage building. A new campaign spearheaded by Niagara Falls Tourism, which represents 400 local operators, is also part of the effort to attract more locals. It highlights safety and sanitization measures in place at popular attractions to help the city stand out among the many Ontario destinations vying for a limited pool of sometimes pandemic-weary domestic tourists. “Right now, it's a very competitive marketplace, and there's a lot of information out there from all of the communities in Ontario because everyone is in the same situation,” says Janice Thompson, CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism. “We're all promoting the hyper-local message of ‘vacation in your own backyard,’” she adds, noting that her organization is primarily targeting people within a four-hour drive. 

For the campaign, called Safe to Play, Niagara Falls Tourism has created a website with comprehensive breakdowns of how different attractions and tourism operators are working to maintain physical distancing and good hygiene. For example, at the Journey Behind the Falls tour, there are limited tour-group sizes, mandatory face coverings, and pre-entry health screenings, including temperature checks.  

Thompson says that 95 per cent of the 40,000 people who work in tourism in the Niagara region have been laid off during the pandemic. While the province’s reopening has allowed some to return to work, hotels and attractions aren’t running anywhere near normal capacity. “But the tourism community has always been known as a community that's very resilient,” Thompson says. “And, you know, if there's any industry that's up for the challenge — and has had the experience overcoming difficult economic times or unusual situations — it definitely is the tourism business.” She adds that it’s too early to make a prediction but that people in the business are anticipating recovery to be slow and losses to continue.

Adam Weaver, a professor of tourism at Niagara College, notes that appealing to domestic tourists presents challenges. “I would suspect that one issue with drawing upon nearby markets is that you are going to attract a fair number of day visitors,” he says. “They aren't staying for 24 hours or more than 24 hours at a destination; they will be coming down for the day, perhaps having a restaurant meal, and possibly returning to their home within the day.” That means they’re likely spending less than tourists from farther away: “But, frankly, this is what you've got to work with now.” 

Despite the economic impact of the border closure, Kerrio says he’s not aware of any sustained push for reopening to international tourists. In May, Niagara Falls council voted to sign an open letter from neighbouring border towns to the federal government asking for consultation before the U.S. border closure ends. “I think slow and steady wins the race,” George McDermott, the Fort Erie city councillor who started the open letter, told TVO.org in May. “That's what we're hoping for. We'd like [the pandemic] to be over tomorrow, but it's not going to be.” Neighbouring New York State has suffered a major COVID-19 outbreak, and the stateside death toll stands at about 131,000; its mortality rate is about double that of Canada. “The safer Niagara Falls is, the more apt we are to have people come here,” Kerrio said. Despite a new push to reopen from U.S. congressmembers, officials say the decision will be made by Canada

While the success of Niagara Falls’ strategy remains to be seen, there is some indication that Ontarians are looking to vacation locally: for example, a sharp rise in RV sales. “The surge has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says Catherine Twerd, the sales manager at Sicard RV in St. Catharines. “We are anticipating that we may be out of stock on certain models by the end of July.” Suppliers, she adds, can’t keep up with orders. In June alone, 458 units were sold, a number 30 or 40 per cent higher than usual. Twerd says that some of that may be the result of pent-up demand from the two months when the store was closed due to the provincial order applied to non-essential businesses — but that, overall, interest in RVs and trailers is up. “I've actually had customers come in to say, ‘We've never camped before, but, based on what the current situation is, we've decided to look at buying a trailer, because we foresee this being a situation not just for this year, but for next year as well.’” She says people like the fact that, when they travel to a campsite with one of these vehicles, they have their own private beds, washrooms, and kitchens — ideal for physical distancing.  

While local destinations may not hold the same appeal as exotic getaways, Weaver notes that limited budgets post-COVID-19 could lead people to reevaluate what a vacation is: “People struggling a bit, perhaps operating with reduced income, [will look for] things that are free and have more value: the view, for example, or browsing, or lingering somewhere,” he says. “Again, that time spent with family, the people that you're travelling with — that is actually what's valued and not necessarily a big-ticket experience that costs a lot of money.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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