Skift Take

The increased competition among jet boat tour operators near Niagara Falls reflects the growing importance of the adventure travel trend. It isn't enough to peer down from atop the Falls, people want to get more involved in the experience, white water and all.

It could be called “The Battle on the Niagara” — what’s shaping up as an all-out campaign to capture part of the annual invasion that brings millions of visitors to Niagara Falls.

While two long-established sightseeing boat companies are vying for tourist dollars in the prime viewing area directly below the falls, two jet boat firms will soon compete for the first time down river in a scenic stretch known to suddenly turn wild and exciting.

Below the falls, the Maid of the Mist Corp., is operating out of the U.S. side, and newcomer Hornblower Cruises, from the Canadian landing.

For the first time, the Whirlpool Jet., based at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., will share a scenic stretch of the Lower River with a newly formed Niagara Adventures, expected to inaugurate its service Wednesday from its home port, at the Fox Boyz Marina, adjacent to the Youngstown village dock.

Co-owners Mike Fox, a businessman formerly associated with the Fox Fence Co., and Chris Bohnenkemp of Boise, Idaho, had been hoping to launch by this holiday weekend but the start-up was delayed for several reasons. On Thursday, their new boats underwent the mandated U.S. Coast Guard inspection and there are still some matters to be completed as part of the process.

Since the Whirlpool Jet fleet was launched more than 20 years ago, it has carried 1.5 million passengers between its base at Niagara-on-the-Lake to the rapids and the Whirlpool, one of the deepest parts of the gorge.

As his boats prepared to launch earlier this month, owner and president John Kinney said that the trip his company offers was just the kind of adventure to cure the cabin fever that kept families cooped up indoors for weeks and weeks as winter seemed to never end.

One advantage Kinney has over Fox and Bohnenkemp is that his jet boats can operate out of both sides of the border since he also owns the Water Street Landing that includes a restaurant and boat docks at the foot of Center Street, Lewiston.

The Whirlpool Jets started the season about a week ago, in advance of the Victoria Day holiday in Canada.

Reflecting on the late start-up, Fox said he regrets that the company missed out on an aggressive marketing effort in the winter. Still Fox and his partner are confident that when all “systems are go,” their fleet will quickly win favor with visitors.

Since his advertising and promotion didn’t shift into high gear until early spring, he is resigned to the reality that the first year of operations could be slower than projected. “It appears now that we will have to depend more on the rubber tire business,” he said, alluding to the tourists arriving here via their own vehicles or on motorcoach tours often within a 200 to 300 mile radius.

The influx of foreign travelers will be a prime target for the new boat company next year, he predicts. Fox is excited about the firm’s association with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the lead agency for promoting Niagara as a world-class destination. “We even hope to accompany the NTCC on some of their international sales missions,” he added.

Fox and Bohnenkamp did test the waters. However, with an unannounced trip April 27 from their marina in Youngstown, along the Niagara River, past the Whirlpool and the treacherous rapids to within 100 yards of the falls.

Some observers viewed it as a stunt but Fox insisted later that the roundtrip ride was to demonstrate how safe their boats were.

Kinney said he knew nothing of their dramatic trip until the police called him that morning, thinking he had been making a trial run. (His jet boats operate between Niagara-on-the-Lake or Lewiston/Queenston but never proceed beyond the Whirlpool).

“We’ve been on this river 25 years and we knew from day one, you can’t guarantee safety upstream from the Whirlpool.”

Fox was quick to note that the Niagara Adventure boats were successful in negotiating the rough currents of the Snake River in Idaho, months before they were brought to the Niagara area.

Kinney said that, in addition to the jet boat rides his company will be offering dinner cruises this season aboard the 149-passenger Niagara Belle along the river and near the entrance to Lake Ontario. ___

Tags: boats, niagara falls, tours

Photo credit: Two jet boat operators will be competing for customers for the first time in the waters near the Niagara Falls. Pictured is one of the operators, Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours