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FALLS TOURISM TAKES BIG HIT

The economic shock wave of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has hit the international tourist destination of Niagara Falls, resulting in early layoffs of seasonal workers and a glut of empty hotel rooms.

Now tourism authorities are looking for ways to blunt the impact.

"It isn't going to happen overnight," said Stan Rydelek, executive director of the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In Niagara Falls, Ont., on the heels of the most successful summer in memory, the hotels, casino and other tourist-oriented businesses have seen a flood of sightseers dwindle to a trickle, said Mayor Wayne Thomson. In addition to sharing the grief and shock of their American neighbors, Thomson said, the city has seen a promising October erased.

"We've never experienced anything like it," he said.

The Niagara Parks Commission is laying off workers who normally remain on the payroll until November. Thomson said hotel occupancy was at the lowest levels in 20 years.

Across the Niagara River in New York, hotels saw a wave of cancellations as well, said Rydelek. Until the fear of flying and the nation's concerns about future conflict fades, rebuilding that business will be difficult, Rydelek said.

"Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said.

Tourism centers across the nation have seen dramatic drops in visitation, and Niagara Falls is no exception, said Orlando-based tourism marketing consultant Joseph Lathrop, who was hired by Niagara University to study the American side's marketing.

The drop in clientele is the result not only of post-attack tension and disruption in the airline business, Lathrop said, but the larger depression of an economy nearing recession.

Since domestic tourism is tied closely to disposable income, there's no way to predict accurately how bad tourism will be hurt, or for how long, Lathrop said -- not unless you know how long the conflict will last, and how Americans will react to it.

Destinations that rely on tourists who drive, such as Niagara Falls, could recover more quickly, because their clientele doesn't have to overcome any lingering airliner anxiety, Lathrop said. But that's not a sure bet either.

In Niagara Falls, Ont., tourism leaders are trying to refocus their marketing to deal with changing perceptions. An October that would have seen a substantial flow of tour groups from Japan and other overseas nations has been deflated by wholesale cancellations, Thompson said.

At the Niagara Parks Commission, seasonal workers who would have remained on the payroll until November have been let go early, said Chairman Brian Merrett.

As part of its response, the commission is refocusing its marketing efforts on the metropolitan Toronto area, hoping to attract more sightseers who don't have to get on an airplane to travel to Niagara Falls.

The Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau is working to adjust to the new situation as well, Rydelek said.

A Pittsburgh-based group that had canceled its conference in New Orleans called last week to see if it could fit its event into Niagara Falls, a city within driving distance, Rydelek said. He declined to name the group but said it had several dozen members.

"We were able to put together a full-blown conference for them in two days," Rydelek said, including hotel rooms, bus transportation and an excursion on the Whirlpool Jet Boat.

The bureau has also taken steps to ease concerns over domestic air travel by arranging for bus shuttles, Rydelek said. e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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