• Travel and Fanfare

Leaders Optimistic for Niagara Falls in 2021

By Thomas J. Prohaska

The Maid of the Mist VII heads out to the falls with passengers on Oct. 5. Though tourism picked up as the year went on, its 2020 passenger count was only 23% of the 2019 total.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News

For Niagara Falls tourism, 2020 was as bad as it has ever been.

With seasonal attractions closed for weeks during the peak business season, capacity limited and many people unwilling to travel, the Covid-19 pandemic delivered a body blow to the city's tourism-based economy.

But as bad as it was, things got a little better as summer wore on, and there are prospects that 2021 might be a decent year, according to John H. Percy Jr., president of Destination Niagara USA, Niagara County's official tourism promotion agency. The figures for this year are grim.

Percy said Friday that his agency's 2020 revenues from the "bed tax" on hotel and motel bills probably will be down 60% from the $2.5 million that Destination Niagara collected in 2019. That's a measure of low hotel occupancy, which in June was down 66% from June 2019. July occupancy was down 46% from the prior year, August was down 32% from a year ago and September was down 38% from 2019 levels. But the glass-half-full way of looking at that is that July occupancy was 76% better than June, and August occupancy was 28% better than July. "It was a dismal year for everyone in tourism," Percy said. "We fared better than other destinations." According to Percy's data, Niagara Falls hotel occupancy was 24% higher than the national average in August; 45% ahead of the national average on Saturdays in August; and 25% higher on Labor Day weekend.

"We're not an urban center. We're not a primary convention and meetings destination," Percy said. "We are 90% leisure-based and that gives us an opportunity, especially with the wide-open spaces in the rural parts of our county and the openness that we possess. That allowed us to position ourselves well during this pandemic, that people could still get here and be safe."

But the falloff in visitors still was dramatic. The Maid of the Mist, whose 135th consecutive season of boat rides to the base of the Falls didn't open until June 26, carried 285,000 customers. That was 23% of the 2019 figure, spokesman Kevin Keenan said. In addition to opening a month later than in 2019, the boats were restricted by 25% state capacity limitations imposed to try to quell the pandemic.

So was the Cave of the Winds, which admitted 136,622 people this year, through Tuesday. That's down 79% from attendance of 652,417 in 2019. Unlike the Maid of the Mist, which closed for the year Nov. 8, the cave remains open all winter.

"The last couple of weeks' numbers beat last year's by a lot, so people are already looking for ways to be out and about," State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation spokeswoman Angela P. Berti said during Thursday's Niagara Parks Commission meeting. But from April 1 through Nov. 30, State Parks' revenue at Niagara Falls State Park was only $4.4 million, down from last year's $22.6 million.

Although critics have questioned the validity of State Parks' methods of estimating park attendance, the agency's figures are the only ones available. They show a 40% drop at Niagara Falls State Park from April through November.

An estimated attendance of 9.05 million people from April through November 2019 fell to 5.45 million in the same period this year.

Although Destination Niagara's 2021 budget projects bed tax revenue still will be down 40% from the 2019 figure – "I went very conservative," Percy said – there are reasons to think next year might not be so bad.

The main reason is the availability of a coronavirus vaccine, which might put an end to the pandemic just in time for the summer tourist season.

"As vaccine distribution ramps up in the first quarter of next year, people will have a higher comfort level in starting to plan trips," Percy wrote in a report to the Niagara Falls City Council, delivered Wednesday. "As a result, we will begin to see greater returns in domestic travel by early to midsummer."

Research by the Tourism Economics consulting firm projected that 2019 levels of domestic travel probably won't be seen again until 2022, and international and business travel might not return to 2019 levels until 2024. But with Niagara Falls' visitation being 90% for leisure, Susan Swiatkowski, Destination Niagara tourism development manager, said the lack of international options could lead to Niagara Falls benefiting from domestic "bucket list" travelers.

Percy said Destination Niagara has about $3.5 million in reserve funds it stashed away after receiving a Seneca Niagara Casino payment in 2013, so it won't have to cut back its advertising and promotion efforts.

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