NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. — Visitors returned to long-shuttered tourist attractions and restaurant dining rooms in Ontario's Niagara Region on Friday, where local leaders have been calling for the reopening of the Canada-U.S. border to support the area's economy.
Ongoing border restrictions due to the pandemic meant U.S. tourists were not able to take advantage of the restaurants, museums, cinemas and other venues that were able to reopen for indoor service as Ontario entered Step 3 of its reopening plan.
But domestic visitors said they were happy with the wider variety of attractions and dining options now available.
Attractions like the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, the Butterfly Conservatory and the Laura Secord Homestead were among those that reopened their doors. The Clifton Hill neighbourhood, which is popular with visitors, saw families with children, couples and others lining up at attractions and heading in to restaurants.
Sarah A. Samuel said she and her family decided to make a weekend trip to Niagara Falls after hearing about the province's plan to ease restrictions on Friday.
"I think we wanted to make more memories this year as a family after COVID was done because you were not able to see each other for a long time," said Samuel, who lives in Durham Region.
"So, this weekend we're being cautious but trying to make new memories together.”
Samuel said she and her family used to come to Niagara Falls for a summer trip every year but had to cancel that tradition last year due to the pandemic. She said she was particularly looking forward to dining in the area's restaurants.
"The portions in comparison to Durham where I live and Toronto are a little bit larger. I don't know why, but for me, it's like a perfect guilty pleasure," she said.
Jon Knezevici was among those who decided to take advantage of indoor restaurant dining that resumed Friday. He said he'd been eager to take his girlfriend out for a nice meal, with a bottle of wine and a booth to themselves.
"I really enjoy coming out to restaurants and trying new foods, but I love doing that with my girlfriend," he said after the couple finished a late lunch at Antica Pizzeria & Ristorante.
"We haven’t been able to do too much of that since last March but now that we can actually sit inside and not have to worry about what the weather will be like when we’re out to dinner two hours from now is a bonus."
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said he was excited about the reopening, particularly since the border city's economy relies heavily on domestic and international tourists.
"For Niagara Falls, this is going to be huge. Forty thousand people count on tourism in the Niagara Region to pay their bills," he said, noting 80 per cent of the city’s revenue comes between July 1 and Labour Day.
Diodati has been among local politicians and businesses calling on the federal government to quickly reopen the border with the U.S. to tourists.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canada's premiers Thursday that as long as vaccination rates hold, eligible U.S. travellers -- fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents -- could be allowed back in about a month's time.
He also said the government hopes fully vaccinated travellers from around the world could be arriving in Canada again by early September.
Diodati said businesses in his region, particularly small and medium-sized ones, desperately need reopening plans to keep progressing.
"They’re down to the last bits of money...So, this is everything for us. We need this (reopening) to be successful because tourism is like oxygen for Niagara Falls."
Janice Thomson, president and chief executive officer of Niagara Falls Tourism said hotels lost about 90 per cent of their occupancy overnight when COVID-19 hit, and many of the thousands of people that depend on tourism in the area were laid off.
"It’s been a very, very difficult time," she said. "Canadians should be travelling in our own country right now and they should be discovering all the wonderful things, and we look forward to welcoming them."
Top executives with Niagara Falls Tourism, the Canadian Gaming Association and Niagara City Cruises were last week part of a group of local politicians and businesses pushing Ottawa for a firm and fast border reopening plan.
David Adames, chief executive officer of Niagara Parks, said having to cater to a domestic tourism market since the pandemic began meant businesses had to shift everything from products to guest experiences to fit Canadian budgets. He noted that American tourists tend to spend more money per person.
"When you travel further, you’re using more of the tourism economy. You’re typically having to use accommodation, food service, visit attractions, shopping, transportation," he said. "Whereas domestically, you may not have to stay overnight, or you may not have to use all of those services."
Two large casinos in Niagara Falls were not among the attractions reopening on Friday. Both the Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara are expected to reopen July 23.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2021.
Elena De Luigi, The Canadian Press