Insufficient parking and high costs associated with visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake may be holding back the town’s tourism industry.
Members of the new tourism committee unanimously agreed during their second meeting on Sept. 7 that parking and transportation are barriers for tourists.
Committee member Erica Lepp said parking has been an issue for tourists for as long as she can remember.
“I feel like there’s been such little progress in that department,” said Lepp, who also is the property manager from Rentals Niagara, a short-term rentals company.
The committee has been in talks since Aug. 15 and is responsible for helping Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE), a tourism consultant the town hired, develop a five-year plan for the tourism sector.
When CBRE surveyed 297 residents on why travellers might choose to skip NOTL, 212 said it is because the town is too expensive.
That was the number one reason, in residents’ eyes, to avoid visiting NOTL.
The data, presented by Rebecca Godfrey, senior vice-president of CBRE, did not elaborate on what made NOTL expensive to visitors.
This generated almost no discussion as members wanted to talk about parking and transportation issues.
Of the residents surveyed by CBRE, 177 said they thought parking and transportation were deterring visitors, the number two reason to avoid visiting the town.
Tim Jennings, the Shaw Festival’s chief executive, said he wants to see a better system implemented for the parking lot at Fort George.
He suggested the town could introduce shuttle systems to move people from Fort George to other destinations across town, including Old Town.
This would help to improve the transportation services for visitors as well, he said.
Parking and transportation requirements need to be addressed before the town draws up a plan to attract even more visitors, Jennings argued.
In addition to better parking services, committee members said more public bathrooms and fountains are needed.
While the town’s tourism industry generates almost 3,800 jobs, Minerva Ward, president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, said many workers commute because there are few affordable homes in town.
Ward was one the few members who spoke to the need for affordable homes for tourism workers.
While Godfrey’s research showed there was a lack of family activities available to visitors, some committee members shared no concerns on that matter.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” Ward said.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita, who represents council on the committee along with Coun. Maria Mavridis, said other towns in the region do a good job catering to families.
She suggested they “nail down our identity” and “lead with luxury.”
For her, this meant focusing on the biggest attractions in town, such as the wineries, the Shaw Festival and the dining experiences.
However, Godfrey also said the town was missing an opportunity with its lack of waterfront attractions.
Cheropita was interested in exploring opportunities on the waterfront in the future.
“I would love to see us branded as a foodie destination,” said Robin Garrett, a yoga instructor and former tourism consultant.
Andrew Niven said the committee should put its focus elsewhere because the Chamber of Commerce, which he chairs, is responsible for branding and marketing the town to tourists.
According to CBRE’s research, the town had about 2.2 million visitors in 2019.
Several on the committee said the data was unreliable and the town needs a better way to track how many visitors it gets in a year.
“We can’t grow if we don’t know,” Ward said.
She also said it was important to manage the number of visitors by spreading them out.
“If you have 10,000 people in Niagara-on-the-Lake in a day and they’re all visiting Old Town, we’re gonna have an issue,” she said.
However, Lepp noted most of the town’s hotels are in Old Town.
She argued bed and breakfasts can help to spread visitors to the other villages.
CBRE counted 23 operations offering accommodations to tourists. Collectively, these operators have 1,200 rooms for rent.
CBRE did not count small operators with fewer than five rooms.
That leaves out the majority of short-term rentals on the town’s list of 347 licensed short-term units.
The committee is made up of nine people, including two councillors, two residents, four from the tourism sector and one representative of the town’s destination marketing organization.
Among the newest members, Vlad Haltigin and Garrett represent residents.
Jennings, Lepp, Richard Mell and Mark Torrence are from the tourism sector.
Torrence is a vice-president of Peller Estates and Mell owns Grape Escapes Wine Tours.
Niven represents the Chamber of Commerce and Ward is a non-voting member of the committee.
During its first meeting, chief administrator Marnie Cluckie told the committee Ward was brought on as an adviser because of her leadership position with the chamber.