Will COVID-19 take Canada's top park to rock bottom?
As Niagara Parks closes facilities, tourism operators brace for a big hit
Tourism businesses across the country are bracing for the impact of coronavirus on sales.
Smaller operators and those that rely heavily on visitors from abroad may be especially vulnerable to lost revenue, say industry experts.
The federal government announced Friday it will restrict the number of airports that can receive international flights. It is also evaluating whether entry rules may need to be tightened at the American border.
Before that news, iconic tourist site the CN Tower in Toronto had already announced it was closing temporarily. The landmark Toronto building is suspending operations until April 14.
By late Friday afternoon, National Museums of Canada announced all national museums would be closed until further notice, and many provincial attractions like Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, soon followed.
In Niagara Falls, one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, there's an acute level of anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic.
"To be honest with you, I think SARS and H1N1 were dress rehearsals for this," says Anna Pierce, vice president of Niagara Helicopters. "They were literally not anywhere near the impact that COVID-19 is going to have on our industry."
A sudden shutdown for Niagara Parks
On Friday night the Niagara Parks Commission, an agency of the Ontario government, announced that all Niagara Parks attractions are temporarily closing.
The commission's restaurants, retail stores and golf courses, as well as the Falls Incline Railway are affected. Public programming and events are also being suspended until April 6.
The Parks Commission is responsible for many of the attractions, restaurants and facilities in the falls region, including the Table Rock area beside Horseshoe Falls.
Niagara Parks outdoor areas and public washroom facilities like those at Table Rock, the popular spot at the lip of the falls, will remain open and be regularly cleaned. People will still be able to visit the falls and snap pictures, but many of the attractions will be closed.
Niagara Falls welcomes 12 million visitors a year, making it the most popular single site natural attraction in Canada. Another two million visitors visit the Niagara region, well known for its vineyards, wineries and theatre festival.
Relying on international visitors
A third of the falls' guests are international tourists, with most visitors coming from the U.S., but a large number also from Britain, China, Japan and South Korea.
At Niagara Helicopters, the ratio of international tourists is even higher.
They make up more than half of customers who pay for a sight-seeing flight over the falls and surrounding area.
Pierce says foreign tourists are willing to spend more money for a special memory after coming a long way. "They want to do something that is the wow factor kind of experience. And we fit that bill very, very well."
While the company's advance bookings for May and June are holding solid, cancellations are coming in for April.
With business already down 15 to 20 per cent, Pierce is predicting weak demand from Asian visitors this summer, and is concerned about losing European tourists. After this week, the prospect of losing U.S. visitors is adding to the worry.
Earlier this week Niagara Parks Commission CEO David Adames was optimistic the area would still attract its normal crowds from within driving distance for the March school break in Ontario.
Ahead of the shutdown, his organization's response to the pandemic was to step up janitorial practices and provide hand sanitization in a bid to inspire public confidence.
Approximately 33 000 people work in the Niagara region's hospitality and tourism industry, and in the peak of summer Niagara Parks employs 1,800 workers. Adames admits that may change.
"Because we are reliant in revenue producing operations, we do make adjustments based on sales levels," he said.
It normally hires roughly 800 students a year, but says the situation with COVID-19 is evolving so rapidly it can't speculate on future staffing levels.
Not a pretty picture for the industry
At a Hospitality and Tourism Management class at Ryerson University in Toronto this week, undergraduate students were learning a real life lesson about how quickly business can go bad with a crisis.
Some were worried whether places like Niagara Parks would have jobs for them.
For 2nd year student Jonny Braun, there's too much uncertainty. "It makes us think that 'oh we have internships in the summer and jobs, will we still have those if this continues?'"
"I definitely think there's going to be a big hit to the industry," said classmate Jad Abboud. "Companies won't be making as much money as projected a month or two ago."
Professor Frederic Dimanche outlined for his students the many aspects of the industry that will be affected by coronavirus.
Small tourism operators like Niagara Helicopters are particularly vulnerable, he said.
Unlike international companies, they don't have reserve budgets or the ability to borrow from banks. Plus,"it's going to be that much harder for them because they're focusing also on one particular market in one particular destination," he said.
There might be some comfort for small operators focused on domestic attractions in that Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has advised all Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside the country.
That means those people stir crazy to go somewhere may end up taking in more local sites and experiences.
At Niagara Helicopters, marketing efforts have already shifted to focus on markets closer to the company's home base. earlier this month.
"We don't know what is going to happen next," says Pearce.
If the pandemic is prolonged into the summer, she'll have a hard time keeping her 10 pilots up in the air.
She's still looking skyward though for help. "My number one prayer is that it peters out very quickly."