Saturday, June 03, 2006

NIAGARA'S UP AND DOWN IN TOURISM

Niagara's wheel of fortune

Gas prices, U.S. passport law threaten to end winning streak, writes Susan Pigg

Jun. 3, 2006. 01:00 AM

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont.—Tour bus driver Chris Kennedy is as refreshing a fixture in this Vegas of the north as the cool mist that blows off the Horseshoe Falls.

As he navigates his coach through the "new Niagara," the veteran tour guide and local resident positively overflows with tidbits of advice and humorous warnings.

"Here's Marineland," Kennedy says motioning to the 45-year-old kids' theme park. "It will cost you $32 just to walk around the grounds. And I hope you bring your own hot dog because it will cost you $7.50 — and God help you if you need ketchup or mustard."

Use your credit card to get the most for your weaker greenback, he warns the largely American crowd; don't park downtown; be mindful that menus are in two prices — Canadian and American.

"Free is a dirty word in Niagara," Kennedy bellows into his microphone as passengers burst into laughter and shake their heads knowingly. "You pay me to tell you the truth, and that's what I'm here for, okey-dokey?"

Kennedy is, in fact, a great ambassador for Niagara Falls. He not only tells it as it is, but how it used to be before Niagara Falls hit the jackpot a decade ago thanks to Casino Niagara.

"It's been fantastic — just out of this world," says Kennedy of the more than $3 billion in new hotels and attractions that now tower over the falls, including a second casino, the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, that opened two years ago.

"I get a lot of locals who take the tour just to learn about their own city. They can't believe how much we've got here now," says Kennedy.

And the list keeps growing.

Just since mid-April, two massive new water parks have added to the wet and wild fun here — the 125,000-square-foot Fallsview Indoor Waterpark near the falls, and the 103,000-square-foot Bear Track Landing at Great Wolf Lodge on the edge of town. (See K12 for details.)

The 53-metre SkyWheel — touted as the biggest Ferris wheel in North America — opens June 17 on Clifton Hill, offering visitors a stunning new $10 million vista of the falls from its 42 heated and air-conditioned gondolas.

Cirque Niagara — a $10 million mix of Cirque du Soleil-like artistry and equestrian theatrics on some of the world's rarest horses — just opened its show, Avaia, under a new, 1,500-seat big top in Rapidsview park, across from Marineland.

And the area's many wineries are being showcased for the first time at the Queenston Heights Restaurant, 11 kilometres north of the falls, where a new 1,200-bottle wine cellar and tasting room is aimed at becoming "the gateway to Niagara's wineries," featuring the best of more than 50 area vintners.

At least six major new hotel projects are planned for the downtown, including a 59-storey addition to the Hilton Hotel. All of that will boost the number of rooms to almost 15,000 — double what was here before the first casino opened in 1996.

A "people mover" — with a track that will loop around the downtown and connect to outlying parking lots — is expected to get final approval soon. And Clifton Hill, once the honky-tonk heart of the "honeymoon capital of the world" continues to undergo a major makeover.

"Niagara Falls used to be for nearly deads and newlyweds. Now it's kind of a hip place to be," says Joel Noden, executive director of marketing and business development for the Niagara Parks Commission.

"We tell people if they haven't been here in the last five years, they haven't been to Niagara Falls. It's become a completely different city. It's no longer just a day trip."

Tourism officials used to talk about "the magic 100 days."

"We used to have tourism here from May 24 to Labour Day, and then basically in winter we would close up," says former mayor Wayne Thomson, who was defeated after spearheading much of the development. "We always had a dream of year-round tourism and turning Niagara Falls into a world-class destination. But up until the casino came (with year-round entertainment), there was no way anyone could afford to put up $40 million and $50 million hotels."

Now 14 million people a year, almost half of them Americans, flock to this city of just 79,000 residents.

Predictions had been that the number of visitors would hit 30 million by 2016. But that was before the triple whammy of outlandish gas prices, the strong Canadian dollar and — most importantly — the Bush government's planned Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

That new program, which is still under intense debate in the States, will require all travellers, including U.S. citizens, to have a passport or "other accepted (ID) document" to cross the border into the U.S., most likely by June, 2009.

The new program has caused fear here on many levels: No one knows for certain yet what "other accepted document" means, or what it will cost. What is well known is that few U.S. citizens own passports, and that it would be ridiculously expensive for a family to get the documents for a day trip to Clifton Hill (60 per cent of tourists are still day-trippers, although overnight stays are growing.)

But what's got everyone here most worried is that 60 per cent of U.S. citizens (according to a survey done by Niagara tourism officials) believe the initiative is already in effect.

"We've had comments that people think they're going to have to leave their kids at the border if they don't have a passport," says Noden.

Niagara Falls is expected to be harder hit by the initiative than any other Canadian border city. Last year alone it saw a 15 per cent drop in the number of visitors from the U.S., and there are fears that when the new border controls finally are in place, 1 million fewer Americans will visit here.

Already Vancouver businessman Jimmy Pattison has put a planned new aquarium — the second phase of his 406-room Great Wolf Lodge resort development — on hold indefinitely.

"Right now Niagara Falls is in a sort of limbo as people watch what's happening. Niagara Falls is very susceptible because it relies on cross-border business," says Bob Masterson, president of Ripley's Niagara Water Park Resort, which won the rights to build Canada's first Great Wolf Resort.

"We're committed to doing the aquarium, if we understand what the exposure is with the border controls."

Harry Oakes' family owns almost 13 hectares of prime downtown real estate, including the site of the new SkyWheel, and hopes to eventually add more family attractions and a 30-storey hotel. He and his brother Philip say they are committed to improving the offerings for families along Clifton Hill, which is why they spent $10 million on the huge spinning "icon attraction," but are cautious.

"When you look at business, you have to look at market conditions. The passport issue is a wild card right now."

Noden has spent much of the past year selling Niagara Falls overseas, especially in Asia, and says so far the city has largely offset the drop in U.S. traffic with more visitors from Japan, China, Korea, France and Germany.

But there's a growing sense here — especially among locals — that Niagara Falls has gambled too heavily on the casinos and could pay a heavy price. Already it's facing stiff competition from a new U.S. casino right across the river where gamblers can smoke (it's just been banned here) and toss back free drinks (banned under liquor laws.)

Thomson argues that prices here are in line with other major tourist destinations such as Vegas and Orlando. But even local business people, such as Marineland founder John Holer, are concerned that the Lundy's Lane motel area is becoming the only option for families because most can't afford the new high-rise hotels, which can go for $300 to $800 a night.

"It's absolutely ungodly expensive here for everything, especially with the exchange rate," says Texan Heather Daley, after spending $50 for two room-service breakfasts. "I told my husband this morning, I think we've spent more on this trip (per day) than on our honeymoon, and we went to Australia."

Masterson acknowledges that affordability is an issue for families and says his water park resort — where rooms average more than $300 a night — is looking at ways to cut costs.

Great Wolf also plans to subsidize American families when the new passport rules take effect, by providing them with all the ID application forms they need, and taking the price off the room rates, he said.

"It's a one-time thing," he says of the unusual move. "We're just one company. It's going to take the actions of everybody here doing something like this.

"There's got to be an end to what gambling can bring to a community. If we ever lose the thing that made Niagara Falls so special — the natural beauty and the families coming down to see it, and all those attractions along the Niagara Gorge and even up Clifton Hill — if we ever lose that as a focus, and don't keep the place affordable, we will lose our competitive advantage.

"And there are a lot of other places where people can go."


Susan Pigg is associate travel editor. spigg@thestar.ca

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