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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

If Easter week is any sort of barometer, the 2011 tourism season is going to be an exceptionally good one for Niagara Falls. Tourists were out en masse, and even the reality of $4-per-gallon gas prices did not keep them from traveling to see the world's most famous waterfall.

The Hilton Fallsview and Suites in Niagara Falls, Ont., was filled to capacity with guests representing states from all over the union, along with a number of European, South American and Middle Eastern countries.

No one seemed to be clutching their wallets too closely, as they freely spent on sightseeing, attractions, shopping and food. All of this came despite the fact that the area's top attraction, the Maid of the Mist boat ride, was dry-docked due to unseasonably cold weather that caused a very late release of the Lake Erie ice boom.

The Cave of the Winds and the Journey Behind the Falls operated at diminished capacity. The Cave could only allow visitors a ride to the base of the American Falls, as their famed wooden decks have yet to be rebuilt for the season, while the Journey dealt with falling rock that closed their outside observation decks to visitors in the early part of last week.

With the dawn of another busy and profitable season upon us, it seems the proper time for a primer as to how all local residents can best be prepared to handle and augment the big tourism push that fuels the economy of our city and county.

Nothing frosts the hardworking people in the tourism sector of Niagara Falls, N.Y., more than when they hear tales from tourists that locals seem to go out of their way to send people across the border to Canada.

As an American who spends the bulk of the tourism season working in Canada, I have an affinity for the strengths of the two cities that go by the name Niagara Falls. I believe there are advantages to seeing Niagara from both sides of the border, and I think travelers who have the proper documentation should experience the falls from both the United States and Canada.

With that said, I share in the frustration of people who are incensed when local residents seem to go out of their way to steer people directly over the border. If you spend any time near the falls in summer, you've seen this scenario play out countless times day in and day out.

Tourist (talking to local pedestrian after pulling the car over to the side of the road): Excuse me, but where else is there to go around here? We've seen the falls, what else should we do?

Local: There's nothing else to do around here really. Go over to Canada and you can do the museums on Clifton Hill or Marineland or the Bird Aviary. They've got all kinds of cool stuff to do.

What locals need to do is ask a few questions instead. Have you gone to the Aquarium? How about Old Fort Niagara? Do you know about the Carrousel Museum just 20 minutes away that features a 1916 Herschell masterpiece with hard-carved animals? Have you taken the drive along the Seaway Trail and seen all the area's lighthouses?

If people did that, more of the millions of people who come to Niagara Falls each year would open their wallets in America before crossing over into Canada. In my book, there's nothing wrong with wax museums and killer whale shows, but we should all be proprietary when it comes to tourism.

Regionalism and bi-nationalism are great things, but rule No. 1 should be the same as that old mafia axiom: Business is business. Tourism is the last bastion of prosperity in this old city, and we all need to treat it like an honored guest at the dinner table -- with dignity and respect at all times.

Another way locals can help people working in tourism is to show a little patience and respect for tourists when they are driving in the downtown areas over the summer. Nothing says "Welcome to Niagara Falls" more horribly than a local laying on the horn because a lost tourist has taken too long to make a turn.

Often that gesture is followed by the indignity of one of our fellow residents giving a traveler from America's heartland a one-finger salute as a parting gift. Please remember that these people have never been here before and are trying to look at directions, maps or GPS systems while navigating our confusing and ill-marked tourism sector.

Also keep in mind that they have come here with wallets full of money and credit cards, and their goal is to leave a good chunk of that in local cash registers before they depart.

Oh, and also keep in mind that the manner in which they are treated while here will go a long way toward determining whether they recommend a similar trip to their family and friends.

It is also a good idea for locals to have at the ready a mental list of local restaurants they would like to recommend to travelers. I've heard many stories from tourists who tell me that when they asked a local about a good place to eat, they were sent to McDonald's or Applebee's.

There is nothing wrong with national chains, but what most tourists are really asking is, where can I eat here that is unique to your city? Where can I get a meal that I can't get back home?

When I get asked that question, I like to send people to a place like Gadawski's on Falls Street for some authentic homemade Polish pierogies. I might recommend the gnocchi at Michael's on Pine Avenue, or the veal parmesan at the Como. Maybe I send them for true Mexican fajitas at La Galera on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Rest assured that wherever I send them it will be an establishment with local ownership that has a proven track record of providing a special slice of Niagara Falls cuisine. Why do you think so many former residents list restaurant food as the thing that they miss the most about their hometown?

So buckle up, Niagara, the next six months are going to be fast, furious and (hopefully) very profitable for our city. Take one last hard look at the license plates of the cars around you on the road this week -- it will be the last time for a long while that they will be predominately from the Empire State.

Soon our roads will be clogged with plates of every color, with drivers behind the wheel from every corner of the world. I hope you'll join me in looking at it as an opportunity to be a host and ambassador for our community.

The old adage that says "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is true. So is the notion that if you make a good first impression, you'll get a second and third chance to have the same people come back to our region for repeat visits.

As we speak, the world is finalizing its plans to visit Niagara Falls -- are you ready for them? As Easter proved, the year's going to be hopping.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 26, 2011