Gradual reopening, border shutdown cloud tourism season

Paul Battson/contributorU.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, asked U.S. and Canadian officials on Friday to examine the current definition of “essential travel” permitted under the the border closure rules.

Traditionally, the local hospitality and tourism industry can't wait for the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend.

It heralds the start of summer and the arrival of folks from around the world to take in the sight of a natural wonder in Niagara Falls and to set cash registers and credit card readers beeping across Niagara County.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic has toppled that tradition this year and left local businesses wondering what the 2020 tourist season holds in store.

It has also made it difficult for area tourism officials, including those who oversee the county's lead tourism agency, to plan for the future. 

"As we head into Memorial Day weekend, which is typically the official kickoff to our busy summer season, I know that we are all feeling a sense of anxiousness and fear about the outlook of our industry," John Percy, the president and CEO of the county tourism agency, Destination Niagara USA, wrote to members of the local hospitality and tourism industry this week. "While we cannot change the current circumstances we are facing, I would like to take this opportunity to share a bit of hope with all of you that brighter days are ahead."

The letter explains that tourism industry research suggests that once consumers begin to travel again, they will likely do so within a six-hour drive from their home, which may bode well for the Falls and Niagara County. 

"We have always been an extremely strong drive-market destination and in previous crisis, we have fared better than other destinations across the country in our ability to bounce back quickly," Percy said. 

A bounce back from what the top tourism official called "a summer for the record books, and not in a good way," will be important. Local hotel occupancy in the month of April was just 10 precent, compared to a 53 percent occupancy rate in April 2019.

An 80-percent decline in occupied rooms would be unsustainable for local hoteliers.

"This summer will be likely unprecedented," Percy said. "But we will rebound. This may be our worst year ever, but 2021 could be one of our best years ever because of pent-up demand."

Focusing on the Falls and Niagara County's reputation as a family, a leisure and a drive destination, Percy noted that Destination Niagara USA has just kicked-off it's second digital marketing campaign since the onset of the pandemic. Titled "Dream Now, Adventure Later," the campaign targets drive-market consumers.

"Everyone is dealing with this," Percy said. "We're not unique."

Percy said he's hopeful that as the phased reopening of the Western New York economy moves forward, there could be improvement in the tourism and hospitality industries by July and August. He also sees potential for an above average fall tourism season because of the collapse of travel in the spring.

The reopening of the U.S.-Canadian border would also be a boon for the region. Percy said Canadian business is "pivotal" because Canada is the Falls' number one international market and compared folks in southern Ontario to "local business shoppers."

Financial data provide to Destination USA shows that Canadian VISA card holders spend $57 million annually in the Falls alone.

"That does have a huge impact," Percy said. 

With U.S.-Canadian border restrictions now extended through June 22, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is asking both governments to begin planning for a reopening that "protects public health while reinvigorating commerce."

Specifically, Higgins asked U.S. and Canadian officials on Friday to examine the current definition of “essential travel” permitted under the the border closure rules. Those still allowed to cross the border are: U.S. citizens returning to the United States; individuals traveling for medical purposes; individuals traveling to attend educational institutions or work; individuals traveling for emergency or government response; individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (like cargo drivers); and members of the military.

Higgins asked the U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and Canadian Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to consider consider expanding essential travel allowances to permit travel to visit family, travel to manage individuals’ legitimate business interests and travel to inspect, secure and/or manage personal property.

“This approach should not be 'one size fits all' and should maximize safety to the public health," Higgins said. "We should recognize, though, that the restrictive border is an anomaly, since many residents in both New York and Ontario use the border on a daily basis for basic tasks central to their livelihood.” 

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