How Niagara Falls, Canada has adapted to Tourism in the age of Coronavirus

If you live and work in a destination considered a “tourist attraction”, 2020 has unquestionably been a difficult year for your city. With international air travel grinding to a halt and even domestic travel either discouraged or blocked by ever changing border rules, tourism sectors have seen unthinkable downturn. Some have had to shut their doors entirely, and the rest have had to completely rethink their business to survive.

For locals, this may have been a relief at first; a respite from the onslaught of tourists coming to your town. But as businesses shuttered and layoffs mounted, the importance of tourism for their local economies – not to mention the well-being of those employed – would have become strikingly obvious.

Those with decent resources, a good dose of ingenuity and plenty of perseverance, however, have been able to pivot their focus to locals, and in doing so, have been keeping their local economies afloat – even if by a thin thread. Canada’s premier tourist destination – Niagara Falls – is one such example. The region, in a normal year, attracts more than 13 million visitors, supports some 40,000 jobs in the tourism and hospitality sectors with some $2.4 billion in spend around the region.

They were one of the quickest destinations to respond internationally. Early in the shutdown, the tourism board launched the website safetoplay.ca – a guide focused on their region, designed to instill confidence in visiting their attractions and staying in the hotels.

Though the numbers are certainly down – with US visitors making up almost 30% of travellers annually, and those travellers currently blocked at the border (and rightly so) – this has worked, and business, for the most part, has continued to flow. Hotels are operating to reduced capacity, some attractions are closed and hours have changed – but for those looking for some form of respite from the lockdown (in this case, primarily visitors from the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec) can certainly find it here, alongside one of the natural wonders of the world.

I’ve made it to Niagara Falls several times in the past, but this was my first time in a number of years – and my first time travelling by train from Toronto. The GO Transit commuter service ramped up its service to a year round offering between the two cities last year, often running several times a day, costing around $20 one way (with some more affordable packages available) and taking just under two hours with 7 stops along the way.

It gets you from the centre of the Toronto to a half hour walk from the falls (in “Downtown Niagara”), and you don’t even need to prebook it – though Viarail do offer (less frequent) services if you are looking for a reserved seat and a little bit of transit luxury.

The train was quiet as I travelled on a Saturday afternoon, I ended up with a section of four seats to myself (and a good thing to given how loud I was listening to the new IDLES record), which have had plastic barriers installed between them. Masks are required though many do remove them while seated – so it doesn’t seem to be heavily policed. I moved from one carriage to another shortly after boarding, just to get away from some groups doing just that, but that wasn’t an issue (and I ended up in a nicer carriage anyway!).

The train arrived on time and Niagara’s public transit – WEGO – was sitting there waiting to take you straight to the Falls. The Green Line runs every 15 minutes until 630pm, and 30 minutes after that, and will take you to town for free (though on arrival they are hoping you’ll get a WEGO pass for the rest of your time in the city) – which otherwise would be a 40 minute walk or a short Uber ride. The Covid-safe rules saw them sanitise our hands as we walked on the bus, limit 50 people to each bus and masks were mandatory.

On the ride to town, a representative welcomed you to Niagara, and talked everyone through the way things were working in the city. She mentioned that most attractions closed at 6pm, with the last entry is half an hour before then, and gave a few recommendations of things to do and the ways to be safe while you enjoyed the destination’s famed attractions. And then you get dropped off right at the Welcome Centre for the Falls themselves – and that’s not a bad view to start your trip.

I was staying at the Doubletree Fallsview Resort & Spa by Hilton, which was a 20 minute walk from the Falls. It’s a lovely spot in that it’s halfway between the main action of the Falls, and the tourist mecca that is Clifton Hill – whilst enjoying being out of the busy tourist centres that you’ll find on either end.

Sadly, due to Covid there’s no Choc-Chip Cookie on check in these days (but get a recipe to make your own HERE). There were a few other things notable during check-in, in what was my first hotel stay since my trip to New York City in March, such as a jar of sanitized pens sitting at the front desk, and the fact that the room was sealed with “Hilton CleanStay” sticker, letting you know that your room had been sanitized with Lysol. You won’t be able to enjoy housekeeping during your stay, but if you need new towels, or any other services along those lines, they would be happy to accomodate – and Room Service continues to operate as normal.

Also, with the hotel relatively quiet, it was easy to extend my checkout from 11am to Noon. Something to keep in mind, too, is that they won’t be able to keep your bags anywhere when you checkout – yet another casualty of Covid – so do factor this into your plans. If you have a bit of time, hopefully they can extend your stay further, or maybe you’ll just need to enjoy a Starbucks coffee in the lobby cafe, Moose and Squirrel, which is open 730am to 10pm, 7 days a week.

As with just about every Doubletree I’ve ever stayed in, this was a lovely stay. The beds were comfortable and the shower wonderfully high powered. While some of the amenities were closed, plenty of what you would want to utilise in a Resort & Spa were open for business. There’s a room with microwave and food and drink vending machines (which has PPE) in the lower lobby, where the pool also is. There’s also a drink machine and ice machine on your floor. The sauna and hot tub were closed, but the pool and gym were open. You couldn’t spend more than 30 minutes in the pool, which is open until 10pm, but there was a note that they would be open to extending those hours to make sure everyone is accommodated within social distancing requirements. It’s a very cosy indoor pool, and plenty of fresh towels are available for your use.

Breakfast is served at their on site restaurant Buchanan’s al a carte, as the buffet is not running, between 730am and 11.30am. At around $10 for most dishes it’s incredible value, and the quality of the Breakfast Burrito I had the first morning and the omelette I had the second was outstanding. The service was great too, and while you were indoors – something I do generally avoid these days – the restaurant was quiet and very spaced out, so I felt very safe in the setting.

So you’ve got a couple of days in Niagara Falls, now what? Those looking for outdoor, Covid-safe adventure can find it here in droves.

The Whirlpool Aero Car (pictured above) is another famed attraction that continues to operate as weather permits. And while the rapids below are too dangerous for any public activities, nearby rapids are accessible in a 12 mile round trip by Whirlpool Jet. And you can get in the Hornblower and cruise right into the mist of the falls, which you can see in the photo of the falls earlier in the article.  You can also take a helicopter ride over the falls, or spend some time in Clifton Hill.

The Niagara Speedway is one of the newest outdoor activities in Niagara’s iconic Clifton Hill, sitting next to the outdoor Dinosaur Putt Putt Course and the Niagara SkyWheel – a favourite for tourists, and all these attractions were operating as normal during my visit.

And then back down by the Falls, the real thrill seekers might want to check out WildPlay’s Zipline to the Falls, which opened back in 2016, and flies you right into Niagara’s mist at up to 60 km/h.

It was my first time taking this unique trip, but even so – the changes to their operation were pretty obvious. After they take your weight and temperature you are given a helmet and a wristband, you walk up the stairs to wash your hands, and meet your “WildPlay element guide” who gets you set into your harness – which includes a backpack so you can place your belongings. And keep in mind – masks are mandatory through the entire experience.

All of it is timed so an edited video is done and ready for you as soon as you step off. It’s a 2,200 foot flight, and is fun and smooth, with a very inoffensive breaking system. The wind kicks up as you slide to the other side and the speed kicks up – but it never feels tremendously fast – even though it may be. Probably for the best as the wind and the most adds another level of excitement to the experience. When you get back down to earth, you get another photo and they take you in a big golf buggy back to the entrance. And en route, there’s a commentary and a photo opportunity of the US side of the Falls. The whole experience took about half an hour.

Those looking for a more relaxed experience, might want to visit attractions like the Floral Showhouse, which is open 10-4pm, Thursday to Monday, and costs $7 for indoor and outdoor gardens – with miniature houses representing the area – eg Muskoka, and some beautiful tree houses too. There’s also the Butterfly Conservatory, and you can walk behind the falls in the incredible “Journey Behind The Falls” experience, which no trip is complete without.

If you’re a local Ontarian, however, chances are you want to get out of the main tourist area all together, and make your way out to one of the most beautiful towns in the entire country, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

If you don’t have a car, you can get an Uber out to Niagara-on-the-Lake, or you can bike the 58km between Lakes Erie and Ontario, with a trail built to do just that. However I joined a private service from See Sight Tours, a company that operates tours in 11 locations around Canada, including Toronto and Niagara Falls in Ontario.

All their tours – except their walking tours – are currently private, and require mask use, which means the service from Niagara to Niagara-on-the-Lake will be safe and just for you and your party. The driver will take you past the Whirlpool on the way there, and give you a bit of a tour of the area in the half an hour drive to your destination. And once you get there, you can explore the beautiful streets of the area for four hours, and enjoy a meal and some fantastic local wines. It’s a highly recommended experience.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a popular destination for locals, and so businesses were busy when we visited on a Sunday afternoon. We made a reservation for a patio just to be safe – and we’re thankful we did, as just about everywhere was packed. We should have done the same for some of the wineries as well, as they also require reservations – so look into this before you arrive. For a meal we went to a sensational new pop-up Italian restaurant just off the main strip called Ruffino’s, which had one of the best pizzas and lasagna’s I’ve ever had in Canada.

Since we were all in the same party, the driver was very flexible on where he picked us up for the ride back to our hotel in Niagara – and he was a wonderful guide. We even spotted some wild deer on the trip back. You’ll find more details about this tour HERE.

The next morning, after a lovely meal at the hotel, and one last walk down by the Falls on a quiet Monday morning, our ride back to Toronto was with Megabus, with mandatory masks, and a much busier service than the earlier train experience – as the trains weren’t running on the day. But it takes about the same amount of time and is recommended over the GO replacement bus-to-train service which takes over three hours. As Greyhound Canada aren’t currently offering services, Megabus is the only mass transit alternative to the GO train currently in operation.

Niagara isn’t the only city in Canada that has adopted new policies and strategies to encourage domestic tourism – it’s something you’re seeing all over the country, dictated by a mix of Province wide laws and local ingenuity. Further north in Orillia (which you can get to via an Ontario Northland Bus), for example, streets have been closed to allow dining on the streets, as they say they’ll “See You On The Patio”.

I enjoyed a meal at The Common Stove, which certainly enjoyed the city’s Friday and Saturday street shut down, with tables placed onto the street at a social distance. Nearby, a busker played on the street, giving us the first dose of live music in months.

And all is well and good in “Cottage Country” places like Orillia, where you can get yourself a view of a sunset like this…

Nothing is ever going to be perfect in pandemic. Ultimately, these precautions alone aren’t going to stop the wider spread, and Ontario, as of this past Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, has gone into heavier restrictions due to an uptick in cases. But the rules, when properly followed and applied, are serving that balance of keeping people safe, while allowing businesses to continue – and for all of us to enjoy a little bit of adventure in our lives. And speaking for myself here, never have I needed that more than now.

So no matter where you are in the world right now, seek out adventure locally and safely, and do what you can to support your local tourism. So when things return to normal, they’re ready to serve guests from all over the world once again.

For more details about Niagara Falls’ Covid-safe measures, head to safetoplay.ca

While in Niagara Falls, we stayed at the Doubletree Niagara Falls on a media rate, and WildPlay and Seesight Tours provided their experiences complimentary. This trip was made possible with the support of Niagara Falls Tourism.

Important Note: Rules in Ontario have changed since taking this trip, so please refer to local rules and regulations before making a trip to the region, as some of the services may not be in operation due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

All photos by the author, except the headline image by Alex Houle. For those playing at home, the author is seen on the far right. 

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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