Every year, millions of people flock to Niagara Falls, Ont., shelling out hundreds of dollars for hotels, restaurants and attractions clustered around the towering falls. But at some businesses, visitors are finding a contentious tourism fee is now a mandatory part of their bill.
CBC's Marketplace, which has looked into the tourism fee before, returned to Niagara Falls with hidden cameras in January to see how things have changed after receiving dozens of complaints from consumers about the fee.
Tourism fees are not uncommon in cities across Canada. But in Niagara Falls, there's no independent body overseeing the funds and ensuring that the money goes back into promoting the city.
Chris Gallagher booked a room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel last August. When he arrived at the hotel, with family in tow, and asked if the fee could be removed from his bill — something he had done on previous visits — staff told him the fee was non-negotiable.
"They refused, cancelled my reservation and left my family and I stranded," he said.
Gallagher found a room at the Quality Inn & Suites, and was relieved that the fee there was removed there upon request.
"It's not the five or 10 bucks, but it's the principle of the matter," he said. "It just appears to be a cash grab."
Same fee, different names
The Ontario government has allowed destination marketing fees in tourist communities since 2004.
In Niagara Falls, the fee can generally be found at the bottom of tourists' bills, underneath the harmonized sales tax (HST). It might be labelled a tourism improvement fee (TIF), a Niagara Falls destination fee (NFDF) or a destination marketing fee (DMF).
While the initial notion was that the fee would be voluntary, in Niagara Falls, some businesses are now saying it's mandatory.
Danielle Orpwood booked a room online at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Niagara Falls last year. When she reviewed her bill, she noticed a 10 per cent tourism improvement fee, which amounted to an extra $40 on her overall bill. She called the hotel staff to see if they would remove it — and they said no.
"I told them that it was ridiculous," she wrote to Marketplace in an email. "I am a younger woman who does not have an extra $40 lying around so these bigwigs can say that it goes back into the city without the proof to back it up."
The Four Points by Sheraton Hotel has been enforcing the mandatory rule since April 2016.
The reason? One front desk employee captured on camera explained it this way: "It's mandatory at the hotel just because we participate so much in improving tourism in Niagara Falls. So we decided to make it mandatory, whereas other places, they don't really participate in it too much," she said.
In addition, the hotel has doubled the fee in the last year, upping the charge to 10 per cent.
The IHOP restaurant is another business where an employee said the fee is mandatory. The restaurant has increased its fee, too: it used to charge consumers three per cent, but the charge now sits at six per cent.
Staff at several other establishments, including Embassy Suites by Hilton, East Side Mario's, and TGI Fridays, told Marketplace's hidden camera-toting staffers that the fee is mandatory. However, both East Side Mario's and TGI Fridays removed the fee when asked about it.
Marketplace reached out to all the businesses mentioned, but none replied directly with details about the fee.
There are other businesses, however, opting out of charging tourism fees altogether, like Applebee's restaurant. RockWorld, a memorabilia shop, has put up a sign stating it doesn't charge the tourism fee, so there's no confusion for customers.
Where does the money go?
When employees at the businesses visited by Marketplace were asked on hidden camera about the fees, several said the money goes toward helping with initiatives like fireworks, flowers and festivals in the city.
John Law, a local reporter and critic of the way the fee has been implemented, said he thinks the province needs to act.
"Until the province intervenes and insists that there's some kind of accountability or paper trail for this fee, we can't say for sure where it's going," he said.
Eleanor McMahon, Ontario's tourism minister, said the fee is an industry-led issue but agreed to look into it.
"If businesses in Niagara are not being transparent and they're not telling people what the fee is used for, then not only am I concerned about that, then we'll engage and do something about it," she said.
"We all agree on one thing, the falls is our gem, it's the goose that lays the golden eggs," Mayor Jim Diodati said in an interview last week.
The mayor and the tourism minister have agreed to discuss the issue. And this week, the mayor met with industry stakeholders, his office said.
The office didn't comment on exactly what was discussed but the mayor and stakeholders are expected to "regroup" in the weeks ahead.
Law, however, said tourists shouldn't leave it up to businesses. He advises people to spend their money strategically when visiting the falls.
"Where I really hope people fight back against this thing is at restaurants, parking lots, coffee. They charge it on coffee in some places. Don't pay this fee. Send a message to these people. Enough."