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Airbnb says home-sharing business is booming in Niagara Falls

The private home-sharing economy is becoming a factor in the Niagara Falls tourism scene, though so far it's made little dent in the hotel trade in the Cataract City.

Since 2014, the number of Niagara Falls-area residents hosting tourists in their homes has quadrupled, and the number of tourists choosing to stay in homes instead of hotels is six times greater than three years ago.

Airbnb, the leading home-sharing website, issued a report this week citing its success near Niagara Falls and other leading New York State parks.

The website said it offers 160 homes within 15 miles of Niagara Falls, up from 40 homes in 2014. That includes only hosts on the American side of the Niagara River, though Airbnb also has a strong presence on the Canadian side.

The number of tourists booking stays in the Falls with Airbnb jumped from 2,900 in 2014 to 18,600 in 2016.

That's a big increase, but still a tiny fraction of the 3.4 million people who stayed overnight in Niagara Falls hotels and motels last year, according to a study by STR, formerly Smith Travel Research, which was obtained by Destination Niagara USA, the Niagara County tourism promotion agency.

A study by Longwoods International showed 7.3 million domestic visitors to the Falls in 2016, with an average stay by overnight visitors of 2.3 nights.

Airbnb said its Niagara Falls guests paid a total of $1.42 million in room fees last year, a 524 percent increase from the $228,000 paid in 2014.

The average Airbnb price was $107 a night, which is close to the $110.70 average price for a room in a Niagara Falls hotel in 2016.

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The Niagara Falls Zoning Board of Appeals has approved 10 homeowners for new short-term rentals so far this year, indicating continued interest in joining the trend of home-sharing.

But so far, Airbnb isn't posing much of a threat to the traditional hotel business in the Falls.

"As long as they're playing by the same rules as everyone else, we don't have a problem with them," said Frank Strangio, owner of the Quality Inn and the Wingate by Wyndham Hotel.

"I just think it's another choice of lodging that in this sharing economy that we're in today," said John H. Percy Jr., president of Destination Niagara USA. "I think hoteliers are cautiously concerned, because it's something new. Whether we like it or not, it's not going away. It's grown. Many destinations are looking at it."

Percy said some visitors would have no interest in staying in someone's home, and the Falls has plenty of hotel choices for them.

"Then there are people enjoying renting space in a community, in a neighborhood," Percy said.

The year-round average occupancy rate for Niagara Falls hotel rooms last year was 57.3 percent, although in the peak month of July, almost 90 percent of rooms were filled.

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Figures from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation show that 9.5 million people visited Niagara Falls State Park in 2016, an all-time record total. But that number includes people who came, looked at the falls and left without staying overnight.

Other popular state parks in the region are showing increases in home-sharing activity. Within 15 miles of Letchworth State Park, the number of Airbnb hosts rose from five in 2014 to 20 last year, and the number of customers increased from 160 to 900.

At Allegany State Park, the number of hosts increased from 10 to 60 in the two-year period, and the number of guests at Airbnb homes near that park rose from 260 to 2,200.

Airbnb hosts near Letchworth pocketed $80,000 in room fees last year, and around Allegany the take was $280,000.

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