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Niagara Falls tourism leaders discuss bringing visitors back, and keeping them safe

WBFO/Michael Mroziak

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul held the first of several planned regional "Build Back Better" roundtable meetings Tuesday morning in Niagara Falls. Local tourism and hospitality leaders sat in on what Hochul referred to as a "dream team" to discuss how the region's attractions have prepared, reopened and conducted business amid a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cuomo Administration, Hochul noted during the meeting inside the Aquarium of Niagara, is concerned about coronavirus increases in other states and the risk of people in those states bringing the virus into New York, which spent months in a shutdown mode followed by a gradual reopening.

"This is a huge hit to our economy locally, so I gathered today tourism experts, professionals people who oversee the many attractions that have come to be known as synonymous with Niagara Falls, and to talk to them about what precautions they are taking to make sure that the message goes out that when you visit Niagara Falls, you and your family will be safe," Hochul said.

Hotel occupancy, according to Niagara Falls USA Tourism's John Percy, is down 66 percent from one year prior. But occupancy increased 58 percent between May and June of this year, and daily stays were up 12 percent.

Online inquiries into Niagara Falls, meanwhile, have sharply increased.

"We've seen a 138-percent increase in visits the website, and a 199-percent increase in page views," Percy said. "Just the new open blog page views increased 57,000 percent. This number seems a little elevated, but I did the calculation myself. It is huge, but people are looking, and they are really searching and looking for what is open."

A current marketing strategy is to encourage New Yorkers to enjoy a "staycation" within their own state and visit parks, businesses and attractions they perhaps have not attended in many years. The lieutenant governor says many popular attractions, including the Aquarium of Niagara, have undergone upgrades and changes in recent years.

"There's over 18 million New Yorkers who reside here, and our infection rate is about one percent statewide with little spikes in different areas, so so New York State itself is safe," she said.

Frank Strangio, owner of Wingate by Wyndham and Quality Inn in Niagara Falls, explained the extensive cleaning procedures taken at his properties. He also noted that for the national hotel brands that exist in Niagara Falls, there are also smaller hotels companies within the city, but their common goal is to share the message that the region is a safe one to visit.

"I think the normal reaction, in a time when things are tough, is to cut back. But I think now, promotion is more important than ever," he said. "It's always important to bring the volume of people here, but now is where we need the promotion to tell people within our state and within a short radius, that we are open for business. We are a safe destination, and that will help keep us afloat and keep us going for the future."

One important source of visitors upon which the Niagara Falls tourist industry cannot rely this summer is Canada. The international border remains closed through mid August. During a visit to Niagara Falls last week, Congressman Brian Higgins suggested the border could remain closed through the remainder of the year.

What frustrates Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino is the infection rates of other states. Those numbers, he says, astounded Ontario Premier Doug Ford and has most Canadians in favor of keeping the border closed for the foreseeable future.

"I think they're looking at the numbers throughout the United States. And that's what's frightening," he said. "I think the lieutenant governor was right. If the only state that the country of Canada had to deal with was New York State, it would be open right now."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.