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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, June 18, 2024
NOTL tourism sector bouncing back from COVID doldrums
John Kinney, president of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours in Queenston, says he's happy with the 2023 tourism season. (Somer Slobodian)

Despite some bumps in the road, this year’s tourist season has exceeded expectations in Niagara-on-the-Lake, industry representatives say.

The travel sector was one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and some businesses continue to deal with staffing shortages, supply issues and the slow return of international travellers.  

Still, “it’s been a strong year” for the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, said Minerva Ward, president of Tourism NOTL and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s success comes off of a strong 2022 season, she said, adding that last year was one of the best ever for Vintage Hotels.

Kelly Exelby, general manager of the Prince of Wales hotel, said she believes it has to do with Niagara-on-the-Lake being a quiet, calming destination.

That makes it an ideal spot for those who may be nervous to travel in a post-pandemic world, she said.

John Kinney, president of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours in Queenston and Lewiston, N.Y., said it’s been a successful season so far – and this year the season won’t end until December.

“We are seeing an uptick in our business this year, which makes me feel really good because we have not been blessed with weather this year,” he said. 

But the company has “fared pretty well” despite some cold and wet conditions this summer.

“It’s not where we would all like it to be, but it’s getting normal,” he said. 

Both Kinney and Exelby are happy with where the travel industry is heading and what this season has looked like so far. 

“You only see it getting better,” Exelby said. 

The Niagara Parks Commission, which boasts nature attractions such as the Botanical Gardens and the Butterfly Conservatory, has seen a return in its pre-pandemic visitation numbers – and then some.

David Adames, Niagara Parks’ chief executive officer, said this season surpassed the organization’s predictions: the number of visitors to its attractions from April to August increased by 44 per cent – to 969,009.

Last year, Niagara Parks had 673,841 visitors during that time period.

“The good news of 2023 is the return of the American visitor,” he said, adding that U.S. tourists are the most important market for tourism in Canada’s Niagara. 

The opening of the border last season helped set businesses up for a successful 2023 season, said Ward. 

During the summer months in 2019, Adames said, 44 per cent of Niagara Park’s revenue came from U.S. visitors — exactly where they are at this season. 

“We’ve seen strong numbers from the U.S. market, not quite back yet to 2019 transaction levels, but certainly we returned to the same revenue levels of 2019,” he said.

He pointed out that the slow return of global travellers from Europe and Asia is the reason why transactions have not yet reached 2019 levels. 

Pre-pandemic international travel numbers might not return until 2025, 2026 or even 2027 for some markets, Adames added.

However, European travellers seem to be coming back more quickly than those from Asia, he said. 

Visitors from China, who Ward said make up a significant portion of business at the Outlet Collection at Niagara and NOTL’s icewine market, haven’t yet fully returned to NOTL. 

The industry also has face some staffing and supply shortages. 

“I think whether you run a restaurant, a hotel (or) an attraction, staffing continues to be a major problem,” said Kinney. 

He’s had trouble finding the right staff for highly skilled positions such as diesel mechanics, aluminum welders and jet boat captains.

“Those are positions that are difficult to fill,” he said. 

The food and housekeeping departments at the Prince of Wales hotel have had some staffing challenges, said Exelby, but things improved this year compared to 2022.

Supply issues have continued and some days are a challenge, she added.

“Some of our food …  all of a sudden one day you get something, the next day you can’t.”

That leaves the restaurants “struggling at the last minute,” she said. 

There’s also been some struggle getting furniture like chairs, tables and kitchen equipment, she said in a text message to The Lake Report.

In addition to food costs, she said construction and repair expenses have risen and likely will never recede.

Despite the setbacks, she said that some supply problems with food products and toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner and soaps have improved this season.

“You kind of learn to deal with it and you become a magician almost,” she said. “But it’s (still) all very, very positive.” 

Though the summer is almost over, the fall and winter seasons also offer attractions and events for tourists, said Adames.

The jet boat season will be running until early December, said Kinney, thanks to a new boat, the Freedom Jet, which gives passengers the option of getting wet or staying dry. 

That gives riders the chance to experience the class five rapids and still make it to their wine tours or Shaw Festival shows, he said. 

“We can run that boat anytime that the Niagara River is ice-free.”

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