How many people visit Niagara Falls, U.S.A. on an annual basis? 

It’s a question local business people, officials and residents have been grappling with for years. 

The answer varies depending on who’s being asked the question.

The generally accepted figure from officials at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation hovers around eight million. It is based on counts conducted at one of the area’s most popular destinations – Niagara Falls State Park. 

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation tracks annual estimated attendance at the state park using a combination of factors, including vehicle use (parking), Cave of the Winds admissions, Maid of the Mist admissions, Discovery Pass sales and special event attendance, including fireworks displays and other activities. 

The attendance figure for 2013 was 8.86 million, with the peak summer months of June, July and August posting in excess of 1.8 million visitors each month. 

The number rose in 2014, according to state parks, with 8.91 million visitors in total, including 1.95 million in June, 1.91 million in July and 2.12 million in August. 

Since its inception in 2003, the county’s primary public tourism agency - the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. - has been reporting out its annual findings in terms of the number of people using its services both in person and online. 

A recent report compiled for the agency by the travel firm, Longwoods Travel USA, determined that 6.6 million domestic visitors came to the area in 2014. 

John Percy, president and CEO of NTCC, notes that domestic visitors exclude those from Mexico and other international locations. 

Percy acknowledged that it’s a challenge coming up with a surefire method to count visitors when there are so many points of entry in a place like the Falls. While perhaps not perfect measures, Percy said the current counts provide a pretty good idea of how many people visit each year. 

“It’s good to have a number,” Percy said. “I wish it were stronger so we would know the exact number.” 

POINT OF CONTENTION

Shawn Weber, chairman of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board, has long questioned the widely accepted state park attendance figures. 

By his math, an annual attendance figure of eight million suggests 606,000 people per month, or about 21,000 people per day, visit Niagara Falls State Park and related attractions on an annual basis. 

If that’s true, Weber says his business and others in the city haven’t seen the spillover. 

“When I talk to investors and you say ‘eight million’ they laugh at you,” said Weber, who owns the Wine on Third wine bar on Third Street in the city. “They say ‘if there was eight million here, every storefront would be filled and every building would be occupied.’”

Weber believes the actual figure is more likely between one and a half million and three million. He contends the state parks’ numbers are artificially inflated to promote the idea that the parks on the American side of the Falls are immensely popular and typically well-attended. 

He’d like the community as a whole to take steps to calculate an annual visitation number that he believes would be closer to reality, arguing that operating under the “eight million” figure isn’t a benefit to Falls tourism. 

“If you think it’s going to help you, it really hasn’t,” he said. “I am a business guy. I like to live in Realsville.” 

Gaelan Baillie, who owns and operates a bike tour and wheelchair and stroller rental operation at the corner of Old Falls and Prospect streets, also doesn’t see how the eight million figure adds up. 

Based on his observations from working downtown for the past seven years, Baillie’s noticed that while the state parks’ lot, local surface lots and the city’s own parking ramp fill up most weekends during the prime tourist season, it’s not uncommon to find much less traffic during the week. 

He agreed with Weber that more development would have happened in the Falls long ago if investors — people who tend to crunch numbers before spending any money — really believed they could capitalize on a market that featured six to eight million visitors per year. 

“For development purposes, let’s be realistic, then you can fix the problems and grow your market,” he said. “If you just say ‘eight million, everything’s good,’ well, everything is not good, just look at it out there. I’m the second busiest corner in Niagara Falls. If there was that many people, money would just happen, but it’s a battle, which is really what it is. It’s a battle to make money down there.” 

Jeff Flach, owner and operator of the Gorgeview Hostel on Third Street, said reaching the figures released by state parks would require more than 21,000 visitors in the Falls per day. To accomplish that, he said the state park would need three times the visitors it has in the summer than it receives in the winter, meaning about 10,000 people would have to be coming to the park on average in the coldest part of the year.

Flach drew comparisons to the much-publicized Nik Wallenda event that saw the daredevil walk the over the falls. He noted that while it was watched worldwide and widely attended locally, it drew an estimated 25,000 visitors to the area that day. Flach noted that a consummate number of people would have to stroll through the park on a daily basis to sustain the eight million figure.

He doesn’t believe those numbers are realistic. Flach suggests that, even if all of the city’s 3,296 rooms were at 100-percent occupancy 365 days a year with parties of four, then hotels would host 4.81 million per year — which Flach said is likely much closer to the city’s annual visitor total.

Flach noted the thought experiment does not take into account that 3,296 rooms cannot be unilaterally available. Locals, for instance, utilize hotel space for a variety of reasons, and moreover rooms can be taken down for maintenance or other such activities.

He believes it’s important to identify more accurate numbers as they are often used for planning purposes when it comes to local projects and developments. 

“If our politicians are making decisions based off these numbers, then they’re not making high-quality decisions because they’re using poor quality data,” he said. 

A NEED FOR DEBATE?

Mayor Paul Dyster said he’d support an initiative to refine the local visitor count, but believes the use of the state park as the primary gauge has been acceptable. He said the main reason has to do with the generally held perception that the bulk of visitors to the state park are more likely to be actual tourists who hail from outside the area as opposed to local residents. 

“We think that people coming to Niagara Falls State Park are more likely to be full-blown tourists,” he said. “It is at least helpful for comparison purposes. It is the same type of number used at national parks. I think that’s the best indicator that we’ve got.” 

Moving forward, Dyster said officials are increasingly interested in focusing on other numbers when it comes to gauging the health of the local tourism economy. The goal, he said, is to drive up other indicators of the health of the local tourism economy, including things like average length of stay and average amount spent by visitors during their stays. 

“We don’t stack up so well there,” he said, referring to length of stay numbers. “It shows you where things need to improve. We want to have some idea about the number of people who come here, but it’s also important to know what they do once they are here.” 

Dyster acknowledged that counting visitors is by no means an exact science, adding that he believes it’s important to accentuate the positive when it comes to the Falls, a place that is receiving millions of visitors from around the world each year regardless of who’s counting or how. 

“The strategy has worked so far,” Dyster said, referring to recent efforts to redevelop the downtown area. “As you get more things for people to see and do while walking up and down Old Falls Street, there’s going to be even more activity. The numbers are only going to increase in the downtown area.”