Efforts to create a binational region from Western New York and southern Ontario took a major step forward Monday, when top tourism officials from both sides of the border met here to discuss ways of luring more vacationers to Niagara Falls.
Margo Jones, New York State's deputy commissioner of tourism, met for the first time with her counterpart from Ontario, Jan Ruby of the province's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation.
They spent Monday morning getting to know each other, and then participated in a round-table discussion and luncheon with local tourism promoters, economic developers and the owners of various local attractions. The event was held at the Skyline Brock Hotel in Niagara Falls, Ont.
"The task is to increase the pie, not argue over protecting and maintaining the turf we already have," said Ms. Ruby, Ontario's top tourism official.
"We need to become less dependent on swapping people in terms of overnight stays. The strategy has to be an alliance to market the resources of Niagara Falls to (international) tourists who don't care about borders," she said.
Margo Jones, who directs New York's tourism promotion efforts, agreed, saying there are immediate ways that governments on both sides of the Niagara River can foster cooperation.
For example, customs inspectors can make it easier for business people to distribute their brochures in both countries, information centers must be improved and local promoters should tell each other what trade shows they are planning to attend, she said.
Ms. Jones and Ms. Ruby plan to meet again in Toronto within the next two to three months.
Both denied that the ongoing controversy over casino gambling threatens to derail their efforts to get the Ontario and New York tourism industries to work together.
The provincial government has allowed casinos to open in Windsor, Ont., across from Detroit, and on an Indian reservation. Casinos that move around, with the proceeds going to charity, also are allowed in Ontario.
Some businesses in Niagara Falls, N.Y., support legalizing casino gambling, but Gov. Cuomo is dead set against it.
Monday's high-powered tourism conference was brought about by Rob Mackenzie, head of the Canadian Consulate in Buffalo.
A native of St. Catharines, Ont., he is one of the most vocal supporters of closer ties between the five westernmost counties of New York and southern Ontario, from Fort Erie to Toronto.
Mackenzie calls this binational region, "Greater Niagara." Others refer to it as the "Golden Horseshoe" or "Buffaronto."
By whatever name, the binational region makes sense, Mackenzie said, because it builds on the long-standing friendships between the people who live along the Niagara River. He believes if people work together economic development and new jobs can be created.
The tourism conference is just one of Mackenzie's initiatives. He also sees opportunities for cross-border cooperation in health care, education and business development.
"I'm trying to reduce this idea of a region without borders to individual sectors, so that people and groups can begin to work toward the larger goal," Mackenzie said.
He stressed that diplomats and government officials cannot will the residents of Western New York and southern Ontario to work together. They must recognize the potential themselves and through private-sector initiatives forge links across the Niagara River that produce benefits for both Canada and the United States.
"Everybody wants the (tourism) pie to get larger. The problem is who will bake the pie," Mackenzie said. "We have to get people here first. Collectively we have to take responsibility."
The Canadian diplomat, along with many of the 100 tourism professionals at Monday's meeting, expressed concern about the declining number of Canadians vacationing south of the border.
For example, the number of Canadians visiting the United States last year fell by 7 percent, while the total number of foreign visitors increased 5 percent.
Tourism experts predict that the number of international visitors to the United States will grow by between 6 percent and 9 percent this year, but there will be no increase from Canada, according to Robert W. Blanchard, director of Niagara University's Institute of Travel, Hotel and Restaurant Administration.
"How are we going to go beyond the four-hour visitor and turn them into the four-day visitor?" he asked, referring to the average amount of time that vacationers spend in Niagara Falls.
"We have to be willing to share them. We have to make a commitment to overcome the road blocks we have created that divide us."
Wayne Thomson, mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., reminded the tourism officials that cross-border cooperation has been talked about for years -- largely to no avail.
"We're dropping the ball in numerous areas in terms of cooperation," he said. "I think it would be wonderful, if we got it together on both sides of the border."
Thomson explained that "political will" on the part of both cities that take their name from the Falls is necessary if tourism-related businesses are to work together. He noted that his counterpart, Mayor Jacob A. Palillo of Niagara Falls, N.Y., was absent from Monday's tourism conference.
"We have a problem of small-time thinking," Thomson said.