Thursday, 23 February 2012

Niagara Falls' Maid of the Mist may soon come to an end

One of the largest tourist draws in Niagara Falls may not be open this year because the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company has lost the contract to operate boats in the Niagara Gorge after 165 years.
Maid of the Mist-Photo courtesy of Reuters
The Niagara Parks Commission announced Wednesday it had awarded a 30-year land-lease agreement for boat tour operations in the Niagara Gorge to Hornblower Canada, a California-based company.

"This is a great day for the Niagara Parks Commission and a great day for the tourism industry in Niagara and across Ontario," chair Janice Thomson said in a release.

However, the Hornblower service isn't scheduled to begin until the spring of 2014 and the Maid of the Mist company isn't sure it can stay in business for this summer's tourist season.

"As a result of this decision, our business, with a 165 year history of service to tourists from around the world, may soon come to an end," company president Christopher Glynn said in a release.

"The implications of this decision are very complex, and impact on many parties and create many uncertainties, including whether or not a boat tour service will be offered in Niagara Falls in 2012."

The Maid of the Mist company did not return emails or calls seeking comment Wednesday and said it its release it would have no further comment at this time.

The new deal is expected to generate over $500 million in revenue for the parks commission over the life of the contract, an increase of more than $300 million from previous contracts, including $67 million in the first five years.

The decision is a major reversal for the commission, which quietly gave the Maid of the Mist company an untendered 25-year contract extension in 2008.

Ontario's Liberal cabinet ordered the commission to open the tour boats to competitive bidding in 2009 after complaints about the unfairness of the untendered contract.

It's the second government-ordered reversal for the Niagara Parks Commission, which last week agreed it would let American daredevil Nik Wallenda walk a tightrope over the world famous falls this summer.

The Maid of the Mist tour boats ferry people from both the Canadian and American sides of the Niagara River to the base of the Horseshoe Falls under separate agreements with New York state and Ontario.

The first Maid of the Mist began operating in Niagara Falls in 1846, and the boats have been drawing more than two million passengers annually in recent years.

Hundreds of riders at a time don blue plastic ponchos to protect them from the mist as the boats manoeuvre through swirling white water to within 100 metres of water crashing down from 50 metres above.

The new service will include upgraded passenger facilities and new tour boats.

The debate over the future of the Maid of the Mist boats was being closely watched in the United States, where New York state officials said they wanted to avoid disruptions to the big tourist attraction.

The effect that the change in operations in Canada will have on the tour boat business across the river is unclear.

The Maid of the Mist Corp. has a 40-year contract through 2042 with New York state.

Sen. Charles Schumer asked Premier Dalton McGuinty to ensure that the Maid of the Mist continue to have access to Canadian docks and storage, saying it would be impossible to build dry docks on the much narrower American side of the river.

News story by Keith Leslie 
Canadian Press