Perry Jost saw the boost tourists brought Niagara Falls this summer just by looking down the street from his four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast.
Parked cars lined both sides of Buffalo Avenue every weekend, not just holiday weekends.
More guests at Jost’s Elizabeth House Bed & Breakfast stayed two or three days as opposed to just one night, a spike over previous years.
“It was fantastic,” he said of the summer tourist season.
Niagara Falls is a world-famous tourist destination, although it’s long been a symbol for the economic demise of the region and has faced decades of its own financial struggles.
But talk to many business owners, and they’ll tell you about the success they saw in the 2015 tourist season.
There was a significant bustle at the international attraction throughout the traditional Memorial Day-to-Labor Day season. And some are reporting strong numbers since Labor Day, too.
“Last year was a record year for us, and we beat it this year,” Ron Droegmeyer, general manager of the Sheraton at the Falls hotel, said of the post-Labor Day activity at his facility.
Niagara Falls is a city betting heavily on tourism for future economic growth. While the city has faced serious economic struggles for several decades and still has problems to fix, businesses say they’re seeing progress.
To be sure, most of the tourist activity still centers around Niagara Falls State Park, the home of the mighty cataracts. Perhaps for as long as the city has been declining, people have been trying to maximize on the effect of the millions who still show up to see what made it famous in the first place.
Business officials want to stretch the effect of those tourist dollars throughout the downtown tourist district, and hopefully, someday, to the rest of the city.
Looking back at the 2015 tourist season, business owners say they have great things to build on:
• Sales of the Niagara Falls Discovery Pass, which provides admission to five Falls attractions at one discounted price, jumped about 17 percent as of Sept. 27 compared to all of last year. Total sales of the pass have spiked 55 percent since 2010, according to state parks officials.
• The average daily rate for rooms at hotels in the city was higher from May through August than during any of the past seven summers, according to data from STR, formerly Smith Travel Research.
• The number of room nights booked thanks to events at the Conference & Events Center Niagara Falls jumped more than 8 percent this year compared to last, according to facility officials.
Big and small, many businesses reported a strong summer season.
Jost, the co-owner of the Elizabeth House, said business has been “on an uptick” since opening in 2008. Though one-night stays by guests are still the norm, he said he sees the increase in longer stays as progress.
Compared to the same period last year, attendance at the Aquarium of Niagara for June, July and August increased by at least 15,000 visitors, said Executive Director Gay Molnar.
The number of guests started picking up in April and May, Molnar said, but “it really kicked into high gear” starting with Memorial Day weekend, traditionally seen as the official start of the summer tourist season.
Molnar said she has seen a bit more business during the shoulder seasons – right before Memorial Day and after Labor Day weekend, seen as the end of the main tourist season. This September was “extremely strong,” she said, chalking up at least some of the business to the pleasant weather.
The Maid of the Mist’s season showed “every indication of continued significant increases in the number of guests,” the company said in a statement. The iconic boat ride below the falls will again extend its season by a week to Nov. 8.
One of the Falls’ main problems – and what economic development officials are trying to correct – is not having enough for visitors to do. Aside from seeing the falls, riding the Maid of the Mist or checking out the Cave of the Winds, there isn’t a whole lot more.
The thinking goes that the more things there are for tourists to experience, the longer they stay and the more money they spend.
One thing that might help is the water park the Sheraton at the Falls plans to add to its Third Street operations, which already include a Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays, video arcade and Rainforest Café.
There are also plans to redevelop two-thirds of the former Rainbow Centre mall into a multiuse property, including a hotel and attractions. There also are a number of new hotels either just built or under construction.
Among the Falls’ newest downtown attractions is an adventure park opened in late July by Joseph “Smokin’ Joe” Anderson at the site of his former Snow Park on First Street. The facility’s offerings include a ropes course and zip lines.
Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino had what officials are calling a “decent” summer, one that was comparable to other years and had typically strong hotel occupancy, said Patrick Bassney, the facility’s general manager.
While about 3 million people passed through its doors over the summer, the casino and hotel “always expect a little more,” Bassney said. He said ongoing road and bridge construction projects in the area caused some frustration for its customers.
Rainbow Air, which offers aerial tours of the area from its Main Street launch pad, is still pulling in customers exposed to the falls’ majesty by Nik Wallenda’s 2012 high-wire walk over the falls, said Vice President Pat Proctor.
The company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in July, has had “banner years” the last three years, Proctor said.
“I just hope the bubble doesn’t burst and the people go away,” he said.
Frank Strangio, whose family owns the new Wingate by Wyndham hotel downtown and the Quality Inn & Suites on Niagara Falls Boulevard, said business continues to pick up every year.
The Quality Inn had a better year than 2014 and the new Wingate, which opened in May, has been “very busy.” For much of the summer, the hotel was completely booked.
Strangio credits the national and international exposure of the Wallenda walk, the “frozen falls” coverage, along with the falls being featured in television and movies in recent years, like the 2009 episode of “The Office” and the 2014 film “Tammy” starring Melissa McCarthy.
“Niagara Falls is an icon and everybody knows it,” said Strangio, who also is chairman of the board of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., the Falls’ and Niagara County’s tourism promotion agency.
“We’re building slowly and we’re building the right way,” he said, “and we just have to continue the momentum.”