For Niagara, tourism rises or falls with reopening borders

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Niagara Falls sits on the U.S.-Canada border. The city on the U.S. side normally welcomes 9 million visitors annually.
Niagara Falls sits on the U.S.-Canada border. The city on the U.S. side normally welcomes 9 million visitors annually.

How does the election of the leader of the free world look from the vantage point of a small New York State town with a big tourist attraction?

Pat Whalen, the director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute (NGTI), and Kurt Stahura, professor at Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management and an NGTI scholar, discussed the topic of how government policies can help and hurt in Niagara, N.Y., home to one of the world's most famous waterfalls.

Kurt Stahura, left, professor at Niagara University’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and Pat Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute.
Kurt Stahura, left, professor at Niagara University’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and Pat Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute.

Niagara Falls can be viewed from both Canadian and U.S. sides. On the U.S. side, the local tourism economy depends on the more than 9 million people who visit annually. Like many economies worldwide, the region lost most of its visitation this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For regional tourism stakeholders, a full recovery depends on the reopening of international borders.

"The Canadian border being opened or closed right now is a significant factor," said Stahura, adding that Canada is the second-largest market for the U.S. side of the falls.

In his and Whalen's opinion, a Biden administration would likely be able to get the border opened sooner.

"It's more likely to reopen under Biden than under Trump, at least sooner, but it will take [Canadian prime minister Justin] Trudeau and the Canadian side to agree to that," Whalen said. "I think Biden would have a better dialogue [with Trudeau] about reopening. Right now [under the Trump administration], that would be a very politically unpopular move in Canada."

The region's tourism is also very dependent on India and China, the world's two most populous countries and two of Niagara Falls' four largest tourist source markets, along with the U.S. and Canada. Biden is seen as the better option to grow the Chinese side of that.

"I think Biden will definitely be friendlier toward China than Trump," Whalen said. "Trump's just got a burr under his saddle whenever you talk about China. ... There's an awful lot of them, and they're moving into a gigantic middle class, even faster than India."

Given the region's dependence on international visitors, both men would like to see more of a welcome from the White House.

"[Pre-Covid] I crossed the border a couple times a week. It's certainly a less pleasant experience under Trump," said Whalen. "You get asked a lot more questions than we did in the Obama era. And a lot of our members are Canadians looking to access the biggest market in the world. I've noticed increasing tension and relief when they get through the border and come here. It's just less pleasant."

Diplomacy aside, both Whalen and Stahura said that it will take markets like India and China being "comfortable enough to get into little tubes like airplanes and trains. I'm not sure that matters much who the president is."

For now, the region is focused on trying to lure more Americans. And democratic governors have so far been more likely to impose regional quarantines that Whalen said are not helpful when it comes to getting Americans to travel again. Rather than impose such quarantines, he said the government should create a digital health passport that enables people to attest to their health, show they have been tested or have antibodies, and eventually, that they are vaccinated.

Stahura said that given the likelihood that domestic travel will rebound far more quickly than international,  domestic infrastructure is important to get people moving again and enabling them to visit places like national and state parks, such as Niagara Falls.

"I've been listening to the rhetoric coming from both sides, and both mention infrastructure as a priority, but there hasn't been any definitive move under the present administration," Stahura said. "But it is something that Biden has spoken about over and over again and seems to be a priority."

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