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Drop in Chinese tourism takes a small toll on local revenue

By Howard B. Owens


First, it was the trade war, now it's novel coronavirus knocking down tourism dollars just a bit in Genesee County.

It's not a huge impact, but Chinese tourists passing through the area as they travel between New York City and Niagara Falls have helped fill up hotel rooms and generate local dining and shopping revenue. 

In 2019, that changed as the trade war meant fewer travel visas were issued to Chinese citizens. In April, there were 5.4 percent fewer rooms booked in local hotels. In May, there was a 7.4 percent drop, 12.3 percent in June, and a little less than 2 percent in July and August. In September, there were 14.1 percent fewer rooms booked.

Many tour companies consider Batavia an attractive location for an overnight stay because the room rates are lower than closer to Niagara Falls, said Kelly Rapone, director of tourism for the Chamber of Commerce.

With fewer visas issued, there were a lot fewer buses stopping outside the Chinese restaurants in Valu Plaza and the BJ's plaza.  

There was also a drop in guests at the visitors center on Park Road.

"We did not see as many Chinese taking pictures in our yard," Rapone told the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday during a department review.

In February, hotel bookings are already projected to be down 20 percent as tour cancellations mount because of the outbreak of coronavirus in China.

"It's funny how something on the other side of the world, such as this coronavirus, could affect us in little old Genesee County," said Chamber President Tom Turnbull.

It's too soon to say how much revenue from the bed tax will drop for 2019, but Rapone said today it could be from 1 to 3 percent.

One wild card is hotel and cabin stays at Darien Lake, which accounts for a third of the county's bed tax. But Darien Lake isn't part of the national industry reporting system the Chamber uses to track hotel occupancy (which is a leading indicator for projected bed tax because that revenue won't be collected and tabulated for a couple of months yet).

"(2018) was so high that a small drop (in 2019) isn't going to seem that bad," Rapone said.

Only once in the past 20 years, Turnbull said, has the county failed to hit its bed tax target.

The drop in Chinese tourists could have an even bigger economic impact throughout the state. Chinese tourists tend to say longer and spend more than many other international travelers. Turnbull noted that the Chinese are only allowed to bring $10,000 in U.S. currency and they are intent on spending every last penny of that money during their visit.

April's hotel occupancy rate was also hurt when a weekend soccer tournament was rained out.

In other tourism developments:

  • The state is reducing "I Love New York" grants to local tourism bureaus by $500,000, which will mean about $9,000 less for Genesee County. 
  • The restoration of the Thompson Rocket Car is nearing completion. The Chamber continues to work on trying to find a temporary and a permanent home for it once the work is done. Rapone expects it to be a tourist attraction for auto enthusiasts. There are plans in the works to take it to an auto show in Syracuse this summer.
  • The chamber's golf package continues to sell well, with Canadians buying more than 90 percent of the golf packages. The new hotel at Batavia Downs has become popular with golfers. Batavia Downs offers free shuttles to golfers to all of their golf courses. It's a good deal for Batavia Downs, Turnbull said. "Think about it -- the sun has to go down sometime and they have the restaurants, the racing, and the casino right there."

Photo: Kelly Rapone shows members of the County Legislature a mock-up of the next edition of the tourism guide.

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