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Falls sees a bounce but no boom as it awaits surge of hockey fans

Niagara Falls, the region's top international tourist destination, has seen a bounce in the number of visitors this week as the World Junior Hockey Championship has unfolded and fans from around the globe have gathered in downtown Buffalo.

The City of Niagara Falls hasn't yet seen a boom, however.

Businesses here hope that a concert by Smash Mouth at 11 tonight outside the Hard Rock Cafe, a guitar drop and fireworks at midnight and a day off from hockey Saturday will draw a more formidable number of fans a bit north.

Hotel occupancy rates are up by as much as 8 percent this week over the same time last year. That said, it's wintertime, and traffic has been relatively light, most hotels have plenty of vacancies, and restaurant tables are readily available.

"We are prepared for the hockey fans," said a spokeswoman for the Hard Rock, one of the most recognizable businesses near Niagara Falls State Park. She said the Prospect Street business had a pin designed especially for the fans.

"We are doing excellently," said J.C. Kobylski, general manager at the Giacomo, a boutique niche hotel in the former United Office Building, the city's second-tallest structure after the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel. "We have double the business we had last year, and the guests are enjoying it."

Kobylski said the Giacomo has some guests from Slovakia and other countries competing in the hockey tournament, "and they are staying for multiple nights, not just for one night."

"The sons and dads typically go to the hockey games," she said. "The moms and daughters go shopping. Some of them come back to the hotel after the games, take a nap and then go to the casino."

The World Juniors, which began Sunday, continues through Wednesday. The tournament has included some games in Dwyer Arena on the Niagara University campus in Lewiston.

Tourism industry representatives said they saw a slight uptick in business this week in and around Niagara Falls, but most fan interest seemed centered more closely on HSBC Arena in downtown Buffalo, where most of the games are being played.

Many of the hockey fans are coming from Canada and staying in Buffalo for just one game and a quick meal before heading back home, with no time for a side trip to the Falls.

Among those who are staying longer, guests have been asking what to do Saturday, when no games are scheduled, according to a Buffalo hotel executive. He said some teams may visit Niagara Falls on New Year's Day.

At Niagara Falls State Park, "visitation is consistent for this time of year," a State Parks Office spokesman said in Albany, "but it is early in the tournament, and we may see more traffic later."

A parks employee said early in the week that there were "a few more cars than usual for this time of year in our parking lots, and there are [more] people walking in the park."

John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said the Joshua Revolution -- a Christian youth conference that ended Thursday -- resulted in reservations for about 1,150 room nights, with about 300 rooms filled on peak nights of the conference. Along with some hockey fans, that produced hotel occupancy in the Falls of about 5 to 8 percent more than at this time last year, he said.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com