NIAGARA FALLS – About 7 percent more tourists came to Niagara Falls this year than in 2011, tourism officials said last week, the second straight season that the natural wonder saw an increase.
The uptick in tourism, particularly during the traditional summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, has been attributed to a warm summer of wire-walkers coupled with a surge in international visitors.
"Just in speaking to tour operators, the numbers are consistent," said John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "They continue to grow from a variety of countries and Third World countries that were never on the radar."
More international visitors have been coming to the falls each summer, Percy said, and about 8 million visitors come each year. Hard numbers on summer travel are still being compiled, tourism officials on both sides of the border said, but year-to-date totals and hotel occupancy figures have steadily increased.
Canadian travelers, whom officials have said make up as much as 30 percent of the local retail economy, have continued to stream across the border as the Canadian dollar retains its relative strength.
The internationally televised Nik Wallenda wire-walk across the falls is expected to boost the summer numbers when they are officially released next year.
The daredevil's June 15 tightrope walk translated to a 7 percent jump in hotel occupancy rates for June, though perhaps surprisingly, the city actually saw a decrease in occupancy rates in July. Officials attributed that decrease to the July temperatures, which were just "too hot" for some visitors.
Overall, though, both the Wallenda walk and the daily wire-walks of Canadian daredevil Jay Cochrane in Niagara Falls, Ont., drew people to the destination and provided an unparalleled marketing opportunity for officials on each side of the Niagara River.
"I think [Wallenda] impacted us on a positive note," Percy said. "I think you always want the destination on the forefront of people's minds."
Government-run parks on both sides of the border also saw an increase, officials said.
Much of the Canadian increase can be attributed to the Wallenda event, where more than 100,000 visitors gathered along the prime viewing points in Canada at the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.
On the American side, Niagara Falls State Park saw an increase of more than 48,000 visitors overall, a jump that officials attribute to the warm weather and the attractions within the park. About 4,000 spectators packed on Terrapin Point for the Wallenda walk.
"People are staying in our destination longer, which is good for the industry," said state parks spokeswoman Angela P. Berti. "[We're] keeping them overnight and getting them into our restaurants, and that's exciting."
An easing of federal visa regulations has also resulted in an increase of international traffic, officials said. President Obama earlier this year announced plans to help more travelers from China and Brazil obtain visas, and international travelers make up about 20 percent of the falls' yearly tourists. Officials have said an "overwhelming majority" come from Asian countries.
The attempt to revive Niagara Falls' status as the "Honeymoon Capital of the World" with the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State has also increased business in the Cataract City, officials said. Gay and lesbian weddings have increased business by as much as 20 percent for some wedding vendors, they said.
"I think that's driving additional business into the region that wasn't there," Percy said. "That's what you want – you want the increases in increments to be from new business."
This year's tourism strategies on both sides of the border focused on promoting the natural wonder while supplementing that experience with other "small treasures" like casinos, wine trails, the Erie and Welland canals and other destinations like Niagara-on-the-Lake and Lewiston.
Both cities, though, are taking more aggressive efforts to market Niagara Falls during the winter months.
The Tourism Partnership of Niagara, in Canada, has booked the Red Bull Crashed Ice national ice cross downhill world championship, a popular event starting Dec. 1 that showcases the country's top ice hockey players and other skaters in a race on what resembles a luge track.
"The fact that that's taking place in an area that's a little slower is all good, so we can showcase the winter season," said Robin Garrett, CEO of the partnership.
The American tourism agency faces challenges as it strives to market Niagara Falls, N.Y., namely the fewer attractions and products to promote than on the Canadian side. It has also had to cut staff and operate on an austerity budget without more than 30 percent of its funding, which comes in part from slot machine revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino that have been withheld for three years.
In the $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, though, the tourism agency thinks it finally has something to draw travelers during the stormy winter months.
"You could develop an entire indoor culinary experience for the weekend now," Percy said, referring to wine- and food-tasting packages at the institute.
"You could never do that before. To have that product in our backyard that has been nonexistent, now we can add that and really have a perfect offseason product to go to market with."
Workers have already begun landscape improvements at Three Sisters and Luna islands on Niagara Falls State Park, and other state-funded improvements will begin in the spring.
"When they come next year," Berti said, "I think they're going to be so pleased with what they see."