Niagara in 'dire situation' as tourism, culture employment falls province wide

The Mayor of Niagara Falls is encouraging Canadians to visit as the city starts to re-open after 98 per cent of its 40,000 tourism workers were laid off and businesses shuttered during the pandemic.

98 per cent of 40,000 tourism workers in Niagara have been laid off during pandemic

Employment in tourism-connected sectors fell by 26 per cent province wide, says a new report from the province's financial accountability office. (Niagara Parks)

The Mayor of Niagara Falls says that the drop in employment across Ontario's tourism sector, highlighted in a new report from the province's financial accountability office, falls short of the harsh realities hitting the tourist-reliant city. 

The report says that between February and May 2020, employment in tourism-connected sectors fell by 26 per cent province wide. Employment in the province's culture and heritage sector also dropped 20 per cent. 

But commercial-heavy Niagara, says Mayor Jim Diodati, has been hit significantly harder. 

He said around 98 per cent of the 40,000 people who work in Niagara's tourism sector have been laid off during the pandemic. While normally tracking upwards of 14 million visitors a year, he said, the "sector has virtually been shut right down from all sides." 

"The border's been closed, the attractions have been closed, everything's been turned down," he said. "You feel like you have your hands tied behind your back and there's nothing you can do about it — you just have to wait for it to be over."

Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Lisa MacLeod also admitted that the numbers seemed low. But she added that it's important the report came out to keep everyone informed about the impact. 

"The things that we take for granted as Ontarians for our quality of life are the very things that are going to be threatened in the long term," she said.

MacLeod added that she needs "more voices understanding" that once the public health crisis is resolved and the economy settles, people will be dealing with "the cultural fabric of this province and the social impact." 

American visitors account for half of Niagara's revenue

In a media release, the financial accountability office said that ongoing travel, economic and social restrictions are continuing to impact the sectors' abilities to re-open and recover. 

Banned trips from overseas and non-essential travel from the United States along with the 14-day quarantine for people entering the country, it said, are all particularly affecting these industries, which are dependent on people coming together. Physical-distancing requirements would also mean significantly dropping allowable capacities for venues once they open. 

Diodati said that while Americans make up around a quarter of visitors to Niagara Falls, they account for around 50 per cent of the revenue. 

While businesses, restaurants, attractions, and casinos are gradually opening up, he says he knows the border will "more than likely not open."

The city will be encouraging Canadians to stay within the country and visit, he said, moving from a from a "stay home to stay safe to come visit" mentality. 

But while Canadians who normally cross the border to visit the states will help make up some of the loss by visiting the falls, he said, the city "won't recover what [it] lost." 

Americans make up only a quarter of visitors to Niagara Falls, but account for around half of its revenue. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

The city has been preparing to open its attractions with measures like UV light technology, hydrogen peroxide mists, anti-microbial sprays, and thermal temperature checks that can address 25 people at a time. 

"The summer of the patio," Diodati said, will hopefully turn things around. But he clarified that they will act more as a lifeline to help businesses pay the bills and "keep their head above water" 

Diodati added that he's calling on the government to offer loans and give businesses reasonable interest rates so they can stay afloat. 

"We're in a dire situation. We know we're going to come out of it, just with government help it can be sooner than later and it can be much quicker recovery...we want to jump to our feet, we don't want to climb to our feet," he said. 

Tourism in the province will not be at the same level as 2019, MacLeod said, for the next four years.

She said that tourism will first be hyper-local as people re-connect with their own communities. When air travel resumes to its original capacity in a few years, that's when "we can start to welcome the world back to Ontario."

Until the outbreak allows international travel, the office says that the loss in annual spending by international tourists in Ontario will reach $11.4 billion. 

In 2019, the tourism, culture, and heritage sector generated $43.7 billion in economic activity, said the financial accountability office, with 147 million visits by tourists (domestic and international) who spent $29.4 billion in Ontario to support 335,000 jobs. 

With files from Colin Côté-Paulette