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Visitors take in the view on July 14 at Journey Behind the Falls, a recently reopened attraction beside the base of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Masks are mandatory here and at many other mainstays of Niagara Falls tourism.

Photography by Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Clifton Hill without people was a sight so unusual Maria Ramunno found it unnerving.

In normal times, the garish heart of tourist Niagara Falls, on streets just north of the falls themselves, underpins the city’s economy, attracting hordes of visitors with waxwork dummies, fast-food outlets and carnivalesque kitsch. But so far this season, the ominous recorded screams from a fright house have been more likely to echo along a sparsely populated street.

There are few children to recoil when the eyes of a pharaonic statue abruptly flap open. And one day last month, Ms. Ramunno says she walked down the hill and literally saw no one. “It felt like the end of the world, almost,” said the co-owner of the clothing and memorabilia store RockWorld, where revenue is down 90 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic. “All my life I’ve never seen that, that was the first time, so it’s very surreal. It’s, you know, unsettling. But at the same time, I’m hopeful things will come around eventually.”

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Although every community is feeling the pain of the coronavirus, it has struck particularly hard in tourist centres. Niagara Falls is the most popular leisure destination in the country, normally welcoming 12 million visitors a year. The falls and the city are the top draw in Niagara region, which also boasts wineries, amusement parks, historic sites and more, and took in about $2.4-billion annually from tourism.

Now, many businesses have shut for the year. Others have closed permanently. Overall revenues are almost certainly down by much more than half this summer. Hiring is also down, deepening economic gloom in a region in which 40,000 jobs rely on the tourism and hospitality sectors.

The response to a $1-million promotional campaign mounted by the provincial government to encourage domestic visitors to the region has, so far, been slow. While busker Joe Vukmanich, who was strumming his acoustic guitar near the falls one recent day, said he was doing pretty well, many merchants are worried about the future. They rely on strong summer sales to carry them through the off-season.

The region is scheduled to move to Stage 3 reopening on Friday, but it’s unclear how much of a boost this will bring. Restaurants, gyms, movie theatres and other businesses will be allowed to serve customers indoors, but no more than 50 at once (and a maximum of 100 for outdoor gatherings). The city’s two giant casinos, Casino Niagara and Fallsview, which can handle 10,000 visitors at a time, announced they will remain closed.

Attendance at the falls has climbed in the past month. So has the number of people visiting the major attractions run by the Niagara Parks Commission since the region went into Stage 2 reopening in June. But it is still expected to be about one-quarter the norm from July through September. While photos that appeared to show Canada Day throngs on city streets raised some worries on social media, most of the time you can move around without any real concern of being crowded.

On two visits in July, the normally busy area overlooking the falls was thin with tourists. One could stroll the promenade from the base of Clifton Hill to a viewing point near the gorge – nearly 1.4 kilometres – and spot no more than 200 to 300 people.

“We knew it was going to be empty, that was the main thing,” Angela Burt said in early July, part of a group of six visiting from Toronto and taking a break from pushing her young daughter, Riley. “This was the perfect opportunity.”

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Visitors ride on a zipline as a Hornblower cruise takes visitors closer to the falls. Normally, the boat tours can carry up to 700 people, but now they allow only six per sailing with a $69.95 'VIP charter package.'

The Rainbow Bridge, left, would usually have lots of tourists driving between the Ontario and New York sides, but now it's closed to all but essential traffic. The only upside for the City of Niagara Falls is that work crews like the one at right have more room to repair roads near the crossing.

Maria Ramunno has run the Rockworld souvenir shop since 1983, and shes never seen a slump like this summer's. She also says most customers enter her shop without masks, which aren't legally mandatory in indoor public spaces in Niagara Falls, as they are in Toronto and Ottawa.

The statistics for Niagara Falls so far this year are very grim indeed.

According to an inaugural tourism impact survey released last year, the vast majority of people who come to the area visit the city. Ontarians made up about two-thirds of visitors to the region and one-fifth were from the United States. Smaller numbers came from other foreign countries and the rest of Canada.

The Rainbow Bridge near the falls, normally one of the busiest Canada-U.S. border crossings, is closed to tourists and other international visitors face severe entry restrictions. Locals are hoping Canadian tourists can help make up the missing numbers. However, early data suggest this is an uphill battle.

David Adames, chief executive of the Niagara Parks Commission, had been hoping for “a very strong domestic market” of Ontarians travelling within the province. But in mid-July, he acknowledged that total numbers of visitors, although up since the start of the pandemic, were falling far short of expectations. The self-financing government agency, which runs attractions that include the falls-viewing Hornblower boats and the tunnels behind the cataract, expects to run its first annual deficit in five years.

For the agency’s first quarter, from April through June, it had a prepandemic projection of $34.3-million in revenue. Instead, it brought in just $4.8-million. In the second quarter, the agency originally expected to bring in $66-million. Last month, the commission cut that projection roughly in half. In July, it halved it again.

The pain is widespread. A survey of businesses across the Niagara region early in the pandemic found more than 40 per cent of respondents had lost between three-quarters and all of their revenues.

Business owners were projecting $1.05-billion in lost revenues if the pandemic was not resolved within six months, meaning by the end of September. Approximately $590-million of those losses would be in the accommodation and food services, arts, entertainment and recreation sectors.

Particularly damaging are losses for Niagara Falls hotels. They took in revenues of more than $650-million in both 2018 and 2019, according to hospitality benchmarking firm STR. In 2020, hotel revenues are down more than 90 per cent, year-over-year, for each month from April through June.

Smaller businesses are suffering as well. Dolores Fabiano, executive director of the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce, said she expects many temporary shutdowns to become permanent. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in, it doesn’t matter how much passion you have, when your entire source of revenue has dried up,” she said. “We’ve never seen anything like it, certainly in our lifetime.”

Among the casualties was the long-running musical dinner theatre Oh Canada Eh? Its production company put the show on hiatus in March, after more than 4,900 performances over 26 years. It then announced a permanent end in early June, in a statement calling the move a “heartbreaking and difficult decision.” A few weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Other business owners, though, hope they can rescue something from 2020, while acknowledging that the longer term remains an open question. Andrew Vergalito, owner of Italian Ice Cream, said he’s “taking it one week at a time,” and warned that July and August are crucial for local businesses. “Those two months can carry you through the bad months … because those are the months you really make enough to last you,” he said. “Our summer months are very important. If we’re having sales like we would be having in the spring [lockdown] it’s going to be a bad winter.”

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Andrew Vergalito of Italian Ice Cream, shown with two-year-old daughter Victoria, says he's grateful regular customers are returning, but business is down dramatically and he's had to sell fewer flavours.

Mike Piccirillo, left, has operated a parking lot on Centre Street for 18 years, and this summer, it's emptier than it's ever been. There are also lots of vacant parking spots at Casino Niagara, right, one of the two casinos that have been closed since March.

With few tourists around, locals have once-busy parts of Niagara Falls to themselves. This family got to have a picnic alone on the lawn of Oakes Garden Theatre, a popular wedding venue.

While the casinos and some of the more immersive local attractions – including the Zombie Attack 6-D adventure ride – remained closed when the city went to Stage 2, most of the tourist zone has lurched back to life.

In some ways, it appears normal. The smell of hot dogs and fried dough wafts along Clifton Hill. Couples pose for selfies by the gorge. Buskers and beggars appeal to passersby.

But beyond the smaller-than-normal crowds, Niagara Falls feels different in ways both subtle and blunt.

The Maid of the Mist boats that sail close to the falls from the U.S. side of the gorge are often packed, but the rules for the Hornblower vessels based on the Canadian side are more rigid. The Canadian boats normally carry 700 people at a time, but are now restricted to patrons who buy a “VIP charter package.” This comes with food, costs $69.95 a person and is limited to six passengers per sailing.

Stand-mounted binoculars that overlook the falls have cautionary stickers, including warnings the virus “can live on public surfaces for a time” and users should “exercise proper precautions.”

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At Italian Ice Cream, Mr. Vergalito reduced the number of flavours he makes, sticking with tried-and-true customer favourites such as raspberry cheesecake. He was also bothered when health concerns temporarily prevented him serving gelato in cones or offering espresso in a proper ceramic cup.

“It takes away from it,” he said in dismayed tones, as he worked on a batch of sea-salted toffee. “Our type of business, it’s about meeting people, talking to people, interacting with people, and now that aspect has been taken away.”

The casinos have been closed since mid-March. They decided not to reopen this Friday, when allowed under Stage 3, citing rules that would have reduced capacity.

“We are reviewing the Stage 3 restrictions and what they mean for our reopening plans,” Niagara Casinos president Richard Taylor said in a statement Tuesday. “While we are not reopening this Friday, we look forward to welcoming back our guests soon.”

So far, Niagara Falls hasn’t had a mandatory face mask rule, although the regional council is set to debate one next week. For now, mask requirements are based on a business owner’s preference. Compliance is spotty at best and it’s not uncommon to see an unmasked clerk lean in close to explain a deal to an unmasked visitor.

One day this month, in the normally crowded and humid tunnels behind the falls, a handful of patrons had the run of the place and many were quick to remove their masks. Three discarded masks were visible beyond the railing of the attraction’s observation platform.

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Ms. Ramunno, at the shop RockWorld, says that the government needs to make masks mandatory. By her count one Saturday, between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of people coming into her shop had no face covering. She offered masks for $2 each, promising to take the cost off their purchases, but had few takers.

The shop is heavily stocked and decorated with wax figures of musicians such as David Bowie, Tupac and Gord Downie, leaving little room for safe distancing. But with so few potential customers in Clifton Hill, Ms. Ramunno didn’t feel she could take a hard line.

“They would just get upset and leave,” she said. “We were losing customers that way … so that didn’t last, we did that for two weekends and then we decided, you know what, we’ll allow them not to wear a mask, but we’ll tell them to be careful.”

How are tourist hot spots in Canada faring amid COVID-19?

Atlantic Canada

On Canada’s coasts, provinces formed regional “bubbles” of travel earlier this summer to try to offset the loss of foreign tourists with Canadian visitors. The four provinces in Atlantic Canada opened their bubble on July 3. There aren’t any firm statistics yet, but many businesses say it has done little to bring in more customers.

Tourism brings in about $4.5-billion annually to the region and supports 57,000 full-time equivalent jobs, according to the Atlantic Canada Agreement on Tourism, a collaboration between Ottawa and the four provinces.

Alicia Ward, marketing manager for See Sight Tours, which operates small group tours across the country and parts of the United States, said that even with the bubbles, business has been slow to pick up nationwide.

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“We haven’t seen much change since the Atlantic bubble came into play,” she said.

Tours originally booked for July and August have all been cancelled, Ms. Ward said. The closest reservations the company has in the region start in September.

During a typical summer, See Sight Tours would have hundreds of bookings a day across the country, with at least a few dozen groups visiting spots in Atlantic Canada, such as Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. And about 85 per cent to 90 per cent of clients would normally be from the U.S. or other countries.

Robert Macquarrie, who owns and runs Shaw’s Landing, a seafood restaurant in West Dover, N.S., which is a five-minute drive from Peggy’s Cove, estimates that as few as 1 per cent or 2 per cent of his customers this year are from outside Nova Scotia.

The local community has supported merchants, he said. Even so, business is only about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of what it usually is.

Shaw’s Landing normally only operates between late April and early November, but this year, Mr. Macquarrie said he and his wife, Karen, may consider staying open longer.

“My saving grace is that I go lobster fishing in the off season, so we’ll get through this year and keep the lights on,” he said.

– Yeji Lee

Gaspé, Quebec

Quebec’s Gaspé region has been inundated by tourists, mostly from other parts of Quebec, since the start of summer. The maritime region is perennially on the list of places to go for many Montrealers, but the coastal U.S. is a shorter drive to warmer waters. With the border closed, however, 2020 has become the year of Gaspé.

“We got off to a flying start to the season in June and July,” said Stéphanie Thibaud, marketing director for Tourism Gaspé, but she added, the late summer often relies more on tourists from the U.S. “People who can come in September should definitely try.”

The burst of tourism has led to some complaints about crowds and litter in some of the most popular areas, such as the iconic Percé Rock formation. People who have shown up without reservations have pitched tents in sensitive shoreline areas. “This is not the year for the unplanned road trip,” Ms. Thibaud said. “But call around, there are still places to stay, especially later in the summer.”

– Les Perreaux

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Western Canada

Out west, mayors of tourist hotspots say their communities have finally acclimatized to a new normal halfway through the summer.

Lodging such as campsites, short-term rentals and high-end hotels with self-sufficient suites have been operating at near full capacity in Tofino, British Columbia’s surfing capital on the west coast of Vancouver Island, according to Mayor Josie Osborne. Hotels with small rooms connected by tight hallways have kept some rooms empty to give more space to visitors, said the mayor, who runs a 10-room lodge and botanical garden.

In a typical summer, she said, roughly 85 per cent of the more than 6,000 daily visitors to the town stay overnight, but this year there has been a huge uptick in day-trippers from other parts of Vancouver Island. With international tourism cut off, the vast majority of visitors are from B.C., with a smattering from Alberta and some from Ontario.

Employers in the town with 2,000 permanent residents have also found it difficult to hire enough staff. “There are lineups at restaurants and there are new limits on the numbers of people that can go into stores, but the beaches are packed,” said Ms. Osborne, who phoned The Globe and Mail on Tuesday from MacKenzie Beach.

In Whistler, which normally draws slightly more visitors in summer compared with winter, according to the municipality’s tourism agency, just a third of rooms for rent on weeknights are occupied, rising to around 70 per cent on weekends, a spokesperson said.

Across the Rockies, in Banff, traffic into the mountain resort this past weekend was roughly three quarters of what it was during the same weekend last summer. During the week, about Banff sees about half the number of visitors or less compared with last year, according to a town spokesperson.

Still, the town is pleased, given that roughly half of all visitors in a “normal” year hail from outside Canada, the spokesperson said.

– Mike Hager

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