Niagara-on-the-Lake has the potential to become even more of a world class tourist destination than it already is.
That’s the opinion of members of the town’s tourism strategy committee, which was struck last year and has been tasked with coming up with a long-term plan on how to prioritize, implement and measure ways to improve the local tourism experience by creating a broader range of visitors and more diverse options to draw people to the town of about 20,000 people.
Last Thursday afternoon, the committee revisited the first two phases of its five-phase approach to create a strategy.
Figures related to visitors shared by tourism consultant Rebecca Godfrey, from CBRE Tourism Consulting, were based on 2019, rather than last year. Pre-pandemic figures are “a better indicator than 2022 in terms of how the visitor economy is going to move forward,” said Godfrey.
In 2019, about 12.3 million people visited the Niagara Region, with an estimated 24 per cent of that number coming from the U.S.
Niagara-on-the-Lake welcomed 2.2 million guests that year and an estimated 18 per cent came from south of the border, she said in her presentation.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce president Minerva Ward, a member of the committee, said there isn’t a “clear source” to calculate a finite number of visitors each year.
“I think we need a methodology,” she said during the meeting. “We can’t grow what we don’t know.”
Later in the meeting, Godfrey said it is “very difficult” to gather visitor data due to there being multiple border crossings in the area, as well as those arriving at the Niagara District Airport. Getting various attractions to “consolidate” their data could be useful, she said.
But Ward had a few other ideas on how to make improvements — one being the implementation of a wayfinding signage program.
“You have to drive really far into Niagara-on-the-Lake to realize you’ve arrived at a world-class destination,” said Ward, who also believes creating more opportunities within all the town’s villages, not just the Old Town, is something to consider.
She said an average of 10,000 people are out and about in the downtown core each day in tourism season, which can be overcrowded and stressful to some.
“The psychological impact of the 10,000 people will not be felt” if that number is spread throughout the villages, she said.
Parking is also a “major issue,” said Ward, adding that a multi-level parking lot needs to be considered to address issues.
Ward also believes the airport on Niagara Stone Road is a “major asset” and wonders if there is an appetite for development at the site.
“In the long term, I’d like to see a strategy in developing the airport for more than what we’re using it for,” said Ward.
Member Erica Lepp also touched on parking as a large problem that needs to be improved.
“That has been an issue, as it relates to tourism, for as long as I can remember,” she said, adding that growing the tourism sector, creating more destinations, can’t happen until issues with parking are addressed.
“We can’t do all these things unless those logistics are smoothed out.”
Lepp also pointed to the need for more amenities to be created involving waterways.
“It’s amazing how little goes on with our waterfront,” she said.
In January, most parking machines in the Old Town stopped accepting credit cards and are now operating on coins or through use of the Honk Mobile app, which users can download and then pay through their credit card.
This has caused problems, especially for U.S. visitors whose cellular data doesn’t work north of the border, said committee member Vlad Haltigin.
This matter needs to be “upped in terms of priority,” he suggested.
He also believes residents need to be kept up to speed as the strategy is put together.
“We need them to come along with us each step of the way,” said Haltigin.
Member Tim Jennings, Shaw CEO, said agencies such as Parks Canada and the Niagara Parks Commission should play more of a role in a solution to problems with a lack of parking, considering they “own so much” space in town.
“I think it would be useful to have those folks involved in a larger conversation about how they can help the municipality,” he said, such as using the parking lot at Fort George for cars,
and the provision of a shuttle service.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita is one of two council representatives on the committee, joined by Coun. Maria Mavridis.
Cheropita said Napa Valley in California is an example Niagara-on-the-Lake could learn from — turning its wineries and culinary offerings into a tourism powerhouse.
It was once a small “hick town,” but grew into a high-end destination because “the residents and the businesses all rallied around that,” said Cheropita, adding that Niagara-
on-the-Lake could be “the number one luxury destination in Canada.”
Cheropita also expressed the need for a waterfront strategy to be undertaken by the town.
The municipal accommodation tax was also part of last Thursday’s dialogue. CBRE’s report said it generated $767,000 in 2022, but is projected to create a revenue of nearly $2.9 million for the town by 2025.
These numbers are only crunched when factoring accommodations with five rooms or more.
Cheropita said short-term rentals should be included in this data.
“That would greatly change the numbers we’re looking at right now,” she said.
Town CAO Marnie Cluckie told Cheropita that staff will look into it and “identify if any changes are needed.”
The next step for the committee will be to discuss “vision and focus” on Sept. 20.
The plan’s final report is expected to be delivered to council this December or January 2024.