In Niagara Falls, Ont., high gas prices aren’t keeping tourists away but border confusion still a worry –

Soaring gas prices may mean some people will stay close to home this summer, but Niagara Falls, Ont., is so far seeing no shortage of visitors as the tourism season picks up.

This week, travellers visiting Niagara Falls said they are finding ways to budget around the high cost of fuel when planning a getaway.

Visiting from Arizona late last week, Leepsa and Jana Mavhavika said they are not letting high gas prices change their plans but decided to use more public transportation to save money during their trip.

“[Gas prices are] very high, but we always wanted to visit this place,” Leepsa said. “After the pandemic, we always wanted to visit some places because we have not travelled a lot.”

“It’s so beautiful here,” she added.

marie mbuyi and her daughter niagara falls

Marie Mbuyi was visiting Niagara Falls with her daughter last week and says after two years stuck at home, she won’t let gas prices keep her at home. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Marie Mbuyi, who was on her first out-of-town trip with her daughter, decided to take a tour bus from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Mbuyi’s husband would drive to join them the next day, she said.

Though gas prices are high, Mbuyi said it wouldn’t affect how they travel and live their lives.

“We’ve been stuck inside for the past two years, so this summer I’m just going to sacrifice,” Mbuyi said. “We just want to enjoy the summer this summer. So if we end up being broke, it is what it is.”

While the area is so far seeing many tourists undeterred, the mayor of Niagara Falls says the cost of travel is a worry. Gas prices have climbed upward since December. This week, the average price of gas in Canada topped $2 a litre, a record high. 

“The vast majority of people that come to Niagara Falls are by the rubber tire,” Mayor Jim Diodati said in an interview with CBC News just before the start of the long weekend. 

“Most people drive because we are within a day’s drive of almost half the population of North America — so high gas prices are a concern,” he said.

In a national survey conducted by the Canadian Automobile Association in November 2021 that saw responses from 2,009 Canadians, 29 per cent said gas prices wouldn’t impact their driving, and 36 per cent said just “a little.” 

But that was long before record prices were reached. 

Finding silver linings

Local operators have been resilient in finding solutions that keep bringing visitors back, says CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism, Janice Thompson.

“Our operators, they are so tenacious, they’re so adaptable and they’re so accustomed to riding with the market,” Thompson said.

During the pandemic, Thompson said the tourism and travel industry in the area struggled just like any other destination in the world but operators have made the most of it. 

“We’re making the best of what has been made available to us, in terms of when restrictions were lifted,” Thompson said.

“We adapted what was on offer and we were able to host visitors at varying levels. So Niagara Falls, it’s always here and it’ll always be here for people.”

If anything, high gas prices might mean tourists may be inclined to stay longer to make the most of their trip, Thompson said.

janice thompson ceo niagara falls tourism

Janice Thompson, CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism, says the local tourism industry has been resilient and adaptable while faced with pandemic restrictions and dealing with high gas prices will be no different. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Thompson also pointed to new transit options for travellers from the Greater Toronto Area.

“The other great sunbeam that we’ve seen recently is the GO train is going to be coming directly from Toronto to Niagara Falls,” Thompson said.

“A family of five can actually travel for $62 return. And that includes not only their train trip both ways, but their [local bus shuttle service] WEGO transportation within the destination,” she said.

“So there are other options — it’s not all about driving your car.”

Thompson said that Niagara Falls tourism has yet to be impacted by the gas prices and they’re not hearing people backing down from their travel plans just yet. 

Tourism from U.S. still down

With border closures during the pandemic, Niagara Falls tourism shifted its marketing strategy to focus on the Ontario and Quebec markets, Thompson said.

Travellers coming across the border from the United States are at a lower rate than previous years, she said, as American visitors get used to the travel requirements to enter Canada introduced during the pandemic.

Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours owner John Kinney said that while pandemic restrictions have gone away, the tourism industry is still facing “some real bottlenecks” when it comes to U.S. visitors.

“Historically, 60 per cent of the visitation to Niagara Falls is rubber tire market from the U.S.,” Kinney said.

“There’s still a lot of apprehension about long backups at the border and do I have the proper documentation? Will I be subjected to quarantine? Those are the things that we’re having to work through and make sure that the visiting public recognizes that we’re open for business,” he said.

“As Americans become more accustomed to what the requirements are at the border, I think people will relax more,” Thompson said.

“I think people are finding that once they’ve experienced it, they’ve gotten through it, I hope that we see that upswing a little bit,” she said, “but at the moment, we’re well served by the market that we have targeted.”

whirlpool jet boat tours owner john kinney

Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours owner John Kinney said the industry is facing “some real bottlenecks” when it comes to U.S. visitors. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Kinney said that apprehension at the border is not his only concern when it comes to American visitors, but the cost of gas could make or break someone’s choice to make the trip to Niagara Falls from the U.S.

“It’s not the 20 minute or hour trip that I’m fearful of. It’s our markets from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Rochester, Syracuse, Boston — those one tank away markets, when now it costs a couple of $100 to fill up your tank,” he said. 

Kinney said that it is those people who may say, ‘I’m gonna stay a little bit closer to home.’ 

“That’s where our fear is,” he said. 

Still, the mayor says the area, which relies heavily on tourism, will manage. 

“We’ve been through so many challenges here in Niagara Falls,” Diodati said.  “From 9/11, SARS, H1N1, mad cow, COVID-19, currency fluctuations and now gas prices. 

“It’s like one thing after the next, but I really believe that’s not going to stand in the way of people coming to Niagara Falls,” he said.