Rise of The Falls
Part peer-pressure and part awe inspires starry-eyed Indian travelers to take that obligatory trip to Niagara Falls
While Niagara Falls, the world famous natural wonder of three waterfalls that majestically straddle New York state in the United States and Ontario province in Canada, is an awe-inspiring sight to behold, the Indian fascination with the falls, though somewhat unexplained, has been equally phenomenal. It is de riguer on the itinerary of Indians holidaying in the United States.
Says Duru Nawani, 61, who took a road trip with her extended family to Niagara Falls: “If you are towards the East Coast, Niagara is one of the must-do things. Also its pretty do-able because of easy connectivity. The taxi drivers in the area speak Hindi, the food at most restaurants is Indian and also inexpensive if you compare to some other family places, such as amusement parks in the U.S.”
Tour operators in New York, New Jersey and Boston are latching on to the growing popularity of Niagara Falls among Indian tourists. OpenWinds is one such Princeton, NJ, based tour operator that promises Indians the comfort of touring the U.S. with like-minded Indian passengers, complete with vegetarian dinners at Indian restaurants. General Manager Vinod Kumar says: “We have seen a steady increase in Indians taking USA tours each year. Many of them are visiting their children, friends and family and are looking for all-Indian group tours that provide them with a safe and enjoyable way to tour the country without having to depend on their hosts. We also see visitors coming directly from India to join these tours, which I believe reflects a growing trend in India towards flexible international group tours.”
As Indians descend by the busloads in Niagara Falls, locals in the area have turned on the charm. It’s not uncommon, according to many Indian visitors, to be greeted with an unexpected “Namaste” in the area or to be surprised by the choices of desi style buffet restaurants in the vicinity.
Niagara tourism officials have taken note of the Indian traffic. John Percy, president and CEO, Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation (NTCC), says, “The Indian market is by far one of our largest emerging markets and continues to grow each year.”
According to NTCC data, Niagara Falls attracts nearly 8 million visitors annually on the U.S. side. An estimated 500,000 of them are Indians. On the Canadian side (see sidebar), tourism officials estimate the falls drew close to 250,000 Indian visitors last year, although some of those numbers overlap with U.S. visitors who cross the border to view the falls from both sides.
Andrea Czopp, NTCC communications manager, says: “We receive a very large number of visitors from India. We have been educating our partners, particularly in the hotels, on how to warmly welcome our international clientele. This includes sharing with them some of the things that certain cultures would greatly appreciate, such as offering beverages without ice, or having tea as an option, instead of coffee as only two examples.”
The little gestures resonated with Sumesh Madan, a professional based in New Jersey, who took a trip to Niagara Falls with TakeTours, a popular tour operator in the region. He says: “The familiarity the local businesses displayed with Indian visitors and their choices was exemplary. There was home style Indian salad at most eateries and nobody asked me twice when I asked for a cup of chai instead of cappuccino.”
Many Indians opt for packaged bus tours, which are quite inexpensive, starting as low as $100 from New York City and New Jersey, inclusive of shared overnight accommodation. Qatar based Mukul Ahuja enjoyed the hassle free trip organized by a tour company: “I just had to pay once and everything was taken care of. Also as someone visiting from abroad I may not have known all the places to go to, so it worked well.”
However, Madan’s experience was mixed: “While we saved ourselves the trouble of driving, the tour is best suited for people who don’t require a custom made adventure trip. The tour guide spoke Chinese and English, leaving many aged Indian passengers wondering.”
Meenakshi Karira, who chose to skip the tours and drive down to the falls from Westfield, NJ, said: “The tours had a stiff itinerary and I didn’t want to feel forced to see certain attractions on the way that I wasn’t interested in, or wait in the cold outside for fellow passengers to arrive.” She adds, “We were also put-off by the negative reviews of the Falls and bad experiences of relative who took a Chinese operated tour and discovered midway about an additional service fee to be paid. The haggle for that small amount turned racist with Indians being blamed for ignorance.”
However, for many Indians the security of sending their families or friends along with a somewhat familiar group as part of tour group is welcome relief.
Sense of Familiar
Visiting Indians are pleasantly surprised by the generous smattering of Indian restaurants dotting the region, offering lavish buffets, complete with dal makhni and kadhai paneer, and food carts. At Swagat Indian Cuisine, owner Joga Singh said that his clientele comprised principally of visiting Indians, who are thankful to discover North and South Indian cuisine during their visit.
NTCC’s Czopp says that aside from Indian restaurants, many Indian hotels and motels in the region are owned and operated by Indians as well.
Nirel Patel, one of the largest hoteliers in the city, who currently is constructing a Courtyard by Marriot in downtown Niagara, says that Indians are heavily concentrated in the tourism sector in the Niagara region, “There are a lot of Indian restaurants owned by a handful of Indian families and about 15 hotel properties owned by people of Indian origin.” In addition, several Indian physicians are employed with the Niagara Memorial Medical Center and other health providers in the region.
Newell Nussbaumer, founder of Buffalo Rising, a website that covers all aspects of the city of Buffalo, says: “There’s definitely more of an Indian presence than I would have ever thought — not tourists like the Asians, but residents too. At the same time, other than the restaurants, I’m not too sure about other businesses.”
According Patel, Indians stand out in Niagara Falls, because most of them are tourists and not U.S. residents. “They often travel in large family groups and you can’t deny that it’s easier to tell an Indian than to tell maybe a British from French,” he says.
Often the quest to understand the immense popularity of Niagara Falls among Indian travelers leads to amusing explanations. Some locals attribute the appeal to the sacred connection that Indians have to water bodies. A bus tour operator reasoned that Indians, like the Chinese, love to flaunt pictures taken at wonders of the world. Patel offers a more benign explanation: “Niagara is more family friendly than New York City or Los Angeles. Also Niagara is easy to access and Indians love holidays around nature.”
His views were corroborated by several Indian visitors at Niagara Falls. Meenakshi Karira said, “Almost all the Indians settled here like to take their parents as it is full of possibilities that Indian parents will enjoy.”
Rupali Dean said: “A lot of Indians are doing adventure holidays and Niagara can be one of the biggest adventures …. The boat tour has quite a seamless system, i.e. passengers off, passengers on. The boat takes you right up to the base of the Falls. You’ll feel the mist, hear the roar of the falls, and sense the boat fighting the strong current of the Niagara River. The turbulence is amazing, the water churning as several million gallons of water per second fall from above and when you turn around there are vibrant rainbows everywhere you look.”
Then there are the intensely personal reasons. Indian American Abiya Olivia Malhotra chose Niagara Falls to meet her childhood friend, Mansha Gupta Lakhotia, who is now settled in Canada. She says, “For both of us making that trip to the Falls was symbolic as both saw each other’s world.” For both women, originally from Delhi, it was a childhood dream to visit the Falls.
Niagara tourism officials are striving to make the Falls friendly for foreign visitors. Says Czopp: “We are currently developing a brochure that will be available in multiple languages of our most frequent international visitors. We also place a strong focus on our sales efforts in India as well as China, the UK and Australia, which is where we see the bulk of our international visitors travelling from.”
A leisurely stroll in the state park captures a glimpse of a mini-India — elderly women in saris attempting to force-feed grandchildren, men taking a leisurely walk in the park, little Indian kids playing ball…. Sometimes the air too feels redolent with the aroma of curries.
A trip to Niagara Falls is a revelation on the sheer number of Indian visitors and how they have created a sanctuary of sorts in this global tourist hub, complete with food carts, places to stay, areas to shop. But just as this Indian presence overpowers, one spots an elderly bride in a pristine gown and groom dressed in a tuxedo, gracefully walking up to the Falls for that once in a lifetime photo opportunity. And that’s when the truly multicultural panorama of Niagara Falls hits you.
Indian Tours to Niagara Falls
Several bus operators offer travel packages from New York City, various cities in New Jersey and Boston to Niagara Falls.
Taketours: This is a bus tour operated from New York/New Jersey primarily for Chinese tourists, but also popular among Indians. The price seems lucrative enough as a two-day US side only tours start from under $108, including one night hotel stay. However, be prepared for additional costs, such $8 service fee per person per day, and tickets to attractions must be brought through the tour guide. The company does not permit Niagara attraction passes and its package does not cover meals. Taketours.com
OpenWinds: Based in the New Jersey, OpenWinds provides all-Indian group tours that are designed exclusively for the Indian community. Tours depart weekly from New York and Las Vegas and cover popular attractions, such as Niagara Falls on the East Coast and San Francisco on the West Coast. The tour managers are Indian and speak English and Hindi. Tours include sightseeing admissions, private airport transfers and accommodation at premium hotels. They only offer multi-day tours that cover a variety of attractions on the East Coast, including New York and Niagara Falls. OpenWinds.com
Tours4fun: This tour service catering to Chinese tourists arranges Niagara trips to both the U.S. and Canada sides from New York, several locations in New Jersey and Boston, with prices starting at $108. They also offer package designed for Indians, but Indian travelers sometimes complain that tour guides often converse only in Chinese. Tours4fun.com
Get Bus Tours (getbustours.com), Viator (viator.com) in the USA and Kesari Tours (kesari.in), Veena World (veenaworld.com), Thomas Cook (thomascook.com), SOTC (sotctours.com), and Cox & Kings (coxandkings.com) are some of the other options.
Things To Do
Niagara Falls State Park: Home to a beautiful lush landscape, the majestic falls and many attractions, the state park remains the key attraction. Visitors can take thrilling boat rides — Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds for rare experiences of the world. Open all through the year and round the clock, the park offers both picnic and recreational possibilities.
Tip: The Niagara Falls discovery pass will offer you discounted rates on five famous attractions at the Falls.
Old Falls Street: The cobbled street, minutes away from the Falls, features games, live entertainment and seasonal festivals.
Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino: the ultimate gaming and entertainment resort is the county’s only AAA Four Diamond hotel.
Old Fort Niagara: The historic site is home to buildings dating back to 18th century
Helicopter Tours: Experience an adrenaline rush above the American and Canadian Falls.
Jet Adventures: a thrilling jet ride will make you experience the whirlpool like never before
‘Indian market is one of our largest emerging markets’
John Percy, President and CEO, Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, talks about shooting Bollywood films in Niagara Falls and the hidden gems of the region.
What in your experience could be the reason behind a phenomenal Indian interest in Niagara Falls?
My experience and what I have gathered is that the Indian market enjoys the majesty of the water and the spiritual significance of it as well. Many of my contacts have said that Niagara Falls has always been featured in educational materials (in India) for years and with that comes the high interest to visit. I don’t know that to be true or not, but we are grateful to whomever placed us in those materials. We love the Indian market and it has been very good to Niagara Falls USA. It continues to grow and is very lucrative and contributes greatly to the tourism economy here. Our doors are open and we will continue to welcome them with open arms!
To boost tourism particularly in India/Asian market will you consider initiatives like shooting of Bollywood films in Niagara NY region?
Absolutely! We work closely with the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission headed up by Tim Clark and we would ensure that he and my team would provide all the assistance we could to ensure that their needs are met and surpassed. In fact, New York State provides tax incentives to filmmakers and that has been very attractive in garnering interest in filming in this region and the State.
Most Bollywood films feature Niagara Falls from the Canada side. Are there hidden gems on the New York side for Indian movies?
The U.S. side of Niagara Falls is very unique and offers many different vantage points in which to showcase Niagara Falls and provide a magnificent backdrop for films. The Canadian side offers a more panoramic view of the Falls, whereas the U.S. side provides an up close experience that is only available on this side of the Falls. In addition to the Falls, Niagara County and this entire region offer many unique and interesting options to filmmakers and again we would be honored to showcase them to anyone interested.
Are Indians one of the largest ethnic groups visiting the Falls each year? What other nationalities form a high number of tourists visiting the Falls?
The Indian market is by far one of our largest emerging markets and continues to grow each year. In addition, Southeast Asia continues to grow, especially our Chinese visitors and those visitors who receive a one-entry visa to the U.S. Also, Australia holds promise and is growing year over year as well as our European visitors. As the world grows so does the interest to travel and with us being so iconic we are pleased to always be on the short list of desired places to visit.
What are the major attractions for Indian visitors?
A. Of course, Niagara Falls State Park is the crown jewel and the Falls themselves. The Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds within the park are a must see and frequented by all visitors. We are seeing the Indian market exploring our many other options that are available, including Rainbow Helicopters, Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA, the Power Vista, Old Fort Niagara, our Jet Boat tours, Niagara USA Wine Trail, and Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises just to name a few. They are realizing that there is so much to see and do in the market and you need more than just a day to visit the Falls and all we have to offer.