The border may be open, but confusion and concern over hold-ups are likely to prevent U.S. tourists from returning to Niagara-on -the-Lake at pre-pandemic levels.
The majority of those who buy tickets to Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours this side of the border are American visitors, says John Kinney, president of the attraction, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “And there is still some reluctance for U.S. visitors to come across the border, which will be with us for 2022 and beyond.”
“The world-wide hospitality and tourism industry have paid the highest price during the pandemic,” he says.
The first jet boat ride in town was May 4, 1992. Kinney says he’s looking forward to an official anniversary celebration, but will hold it in Queenston later on this month or early in June, when the weather by the water is a little warmer.
With an operation in Lewiston as well as Queenston, he has been crossing the border often, sometimes several times a day, he says. “Definitely disinformation is part of the problem. People are still afraid there could be quarantining. The Arrive/Can app has smoothed this a bit, but the staffing shortage at the border is making it very difficult.”
And not, as might be expected, due to lay-offs or illness, he adds, but because, with travel restrictions lifted, border officials are taking the holidays they’ve missed out on for two years, at a time when border checks are taking longer, with the app information for each person to be processed .
“I know we can’t do much about it, but clearly COVID will be with us for sometime. It is frustrating. It’s difficult both ways, but particularly entering Canada.”
His boat tours from the American side of the gorge have already started, and he’s anticipating boats leaving from the Queenston dock this weekend. The start of the season has been delayed by about two weeks, but not because of ice in the Niagara River, which is typically the determining factor of his opening date. Overall, “it’s been a crappy spring,” he says, and rebuilding a retaining wall that has been there since the sand-dredging days has taken longer than expected.
Those who pay attention to Niagara-on-the-Lake council meetings know that the Melville Street dock, and the jet boat operation licence agreement, have been a hot topic, but all behind closed doors. Jet boats have been noticeably absent from the Old Town waterfront for three years, and little information has been made public about the future of the dock.
Last week Coun. Gary Burroughs tried to ask some questions about the town’s agreement with the jet boat operation in the public portion of the council meeting. He was given some brief answers before being shut down, told the town’s lawyer said the matter should be discussed in a closed session.
Burroughs asked if there had been any amendments to the licence agreement during the last two years, and was told there had not. He also asked if any legal actions had been taken on the licence agreement by either side, and was told “no legal proceedings have been commenced,” and also that the town has “not at this time” issued a notice of default. To some other questions he hoped would be answered, such as why not, he was reminded they would be dealt with in a closed session.
Kinney says his lawyer and the town’s lawyer are trying to come to an agreement over his 2021 fees, which he said have not been paid — but quickly added that he did not use the dock at all last year. “I’ve asked repeatedly for a sit-down about this, after paying what I did in 2019 and 2020, but that didn’t get me anywhere.”
He met his financial obligation to the town in full in 2019, he told The Local, although that was the year of flooding in the dock area. The high water levels drove his operation completely to Queenston, and he asked for but was denied any reconsideration of his charges for the year.
In 2021, the provincial stage of reopening allowed him to operate his boats from the Queenston dock with just 12 passengers each tour on boats designed to hold 54 people, while all the fixed charges for insurance, staff, marketing and other costs continued, he says. Government regulations dictate maintenance is required according to the number of hours the boats are operated, and he was running more boats to accommodate fewer people, driving up those costs as well.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to jet boats, there is no such thing as cutting back. You have to be fully engaged in what you’re doing.”
He was able to take advantage of some of the government subsidies, including for wages, he says, but there were no subsides for the rebuilding of engines or jet drivers that was required, “so we’ve just rolled with the punches. We’ve had no choice but to operate a full program out of the Queenston dock.”
Over the years, the town has basically directed him to move his operation out of the Melville Street corridor, he says, “so we moved the business to Queenston-Lewiston.”
Kinney has a vision for the municipal waterfront property, but says he has yet to sit down with the town to discuss it. He’d like to have a small presence at the Melville Street dock, and see the waterfront used for public access, both for visitors and residents. Tax-payers paid millions for the property, he added, “but there is no bona fide use of it for the public.”
He envisions the much-discussed paddle-sport launch, kayak rentals, public washrooms, and maybe a small cafe on the town-owned stretch of property.
“The town has been wrestling with the best use of the waterfront. Clearly the paddle sport industry is a very positive use,” says Kinney.
To the question of how the town will pay for those amenities, and a suggestion that some feel the jet boat licensing fee obligation for the Melville Street dock could be part of that, he says that to compensate for COVID closures and restrictions, the town helped other businesses, including supporting outdoor patios for restaurants. That has taken money away from the town in parking revenue, and while he applauds those decisions, he says there has been no consideration to help him.
“The town spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on consultants to tell us what to do with the waterfront, and we’ve done nothing with it,” says Kinney.
He is trying to have discussions with the town’s senior staff to see what he can bring to the table, he added, with a goal of “seeing more experiences in the area for residents and tourists.”