Niagara Falls tourism fee: Is it mandatory? UPDATE (CBC Marketplace)

[ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: This is Marketplace. We’re back on the case in Niagara Falls, Ontario.>>And it begins. Going undercover for a third time. Why?>>Hello, Marketplace.>>Hi, Marketplace.>>Hi, Marketplace.>>Asha: We’ve been flooded with comments from across the country.>>We hate Niagara’s tourism fee.>>These two fees, they were charging in Niagara Falls are a scam.>>It’s just plain gouging. [ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: We get a lot of complaints on our show, but nothing compares to how you feel about that tourism fee some Niagara businesses are tacking on to your bill. It’s called many things. A destination marketing fee, DMF. A tourism improvement fee, TIF. A Niagara Falls destination fee, NFDF.>>It’s sneaky, it’s shady, it’s deceiving.>>It just appears to be a cash grab.>>Asha: Last time we learned this fee was voluntary. You could have it removed. But now you’re telling us things have gone from bad to worse so once again, we’re in the tourist capital of the world. Home to 14 million visitors a year.>>Here’s the recorder.>>Getting wired up with hidden cameras.>>Ready to do this again?>>Yeah, let’s do it. [ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: And hitting up some of the same hot spots we checked out before to see what we find. First on the list, the Skylon Tower, a popular tourist attraction.>>Asha: This employee quickly offers to remove it. And when we ask about whether they tell people it’s voluntary.>>Asha: Listen to what happens next at the IHOP. They used to charge 3% and then last year, they hiked the fee to 5%. What’s the deal now?>>Asha: Yep, we have to pay it.>>Asha: When did things change?>>Asha: Not only is the fee mandatory at this location, but they’ve also hiked it again to 6%.>>Asha: You can say that again. Seems like we’re getting mixed messages, and so are you.>>One property will charge 10%, another will charge three.>>Some say it’s voluntary, others say it’s mandatory. [ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: Back on our undercover trip, what will East Side Mario’s tells us?>>Asha: But this server doesn’t just leave it at that when it comes to his thoughts about the fee.>>Asha: That’s the whole point. Unlike other cities collecting the fee, Niagara Falls is the only place in Canada where there’s no third party tracking the money. Local reporter John Law has been trying to track it for many years. Do you have any idea from your reporting of where the money is going?>>I’ve asked that constantly and the constant answer is it’s going to fireworks, it’s going to maintenance, it’s going to promotion. If it’s going to all these places, why can’t you direct it to a group that oversees spending like that that makes sure it’s going where it’s supposed to?>>Asha: There’s no paper trail.>>No, there is no paper trail. And until the province intervenes and insists that there’s some kind of accountability or paper trail for this fee, we can’t say for sure where it’s going. [ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: Our hidden camera quest for answers continues at TGI Friday’s.>>Asha: When we ask where the money goes here?>>The key to this fee I found out is confusion. Keep people confused so they don’t know what it is so they don’t know what they’re fighting.>>Asha: We’ve been to several hotels, restaurants, attractions, there’s no consistency.>>No, I know. You can walk down one street in the tourist district, see some places charge 3%, some places charge six, seven, some places don’t charge it at all.>>Asha: He’s right. Not all businesses in this area charge the tourism fee. There are some shops that put up signs like this. So there’s no confusion at all for customers. Seems like Applebee’s has changed its tune. They used to charge 3% but it’s not on our bill today.>>Asha: The confusion continues when we check out at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel. Last year they charged us 5%.>>Asha: Whoa. They doubled the fee. For a two-night stay here, that’s an extra $20 on top of your bill.>>Asha: No matter how hard we try, the employee at Four Points refuses to remove it. [ ♪♪ ] We reached out to all the businesses we visited. No response. But in the past, they’ve reassured us the money we spend on the fee is going towards tourism. John Law is not too sure about that.>>Instead of dealing with this problem that’s angering so many people, it’s like they colluded and doubled down on it which is not what I expected them to do.>>Asha: He says the province needs to act once and for all.>>At some point they’re going to have to step in because other cities aren’t doing what Niagara Falls is doing to the extent we’re doing it. They’re going to have to say enough’s enough at some point because this isn’t what– this isn’t what we introduced this fee for. This isn’t what it was supposed to be.>>Asha: Where is your money going?>>It is not led by my ministry, it is not driven by my ministry, it is not a program of my ministry.>>It’s not a municipal fee.>>We’re getting mixed messages.>>Asha: Who’s passing the buck on your Marketplace.>>Asha: Your money, your Marketplace. [ ♪♪ ] We’re investigating the tourism fee that’s tacked on to your bill in Niagara Falls. With no public oversight into how the money is collected or where it’s going, you want answers and so do we. [ ♪♪ ] So who’s responsible for this fee? Turns out it’s Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. It’s allowed businesses in Niagara Falls to charge the fee and police themselves. That’s why some of you have been complaining to them. Demanding action. For weeks, we’ve asked for an on-camera interview with Minister Eleanor McMahon but she says, no, to our request more than once. We find out she’s hosting a family day skate and catch up with her there.>>I’m Asha Tomlinson with CBC Marketplace.>>I didn’t know you were coming. Did you contact my press secretary?>>We contacted your press secretary several times. We just want to talk to you.>>Would you mind?>>Would you speak with us afterwards?>>I’ll be with a moment, how’s that?>>I know you’re filming so I’d be really happy to talk to you.>>Okay, we’ll give you some time to talk with your consituent.>>Okay, that would be great. [ ♪♪ ]>>Asha: We wait. And wait. [ ♪♪ ] Nearly three hours later. She comes out to speak with us.>>There’s something I just need to clarify right off the bat. This is not a provincial government run initiative, whatsoever. Our government’s priority is consumer protection. If consumers and if businesses in Niagara are not being transparent and they’re not telling people what the fee is used for, then not only am I concerned about that, then we will engage and do something about it. That’s really important. I will reach out to city. They have not reached out to me. And if they had, I would tell them my advice which is to do what municipalities who have successful destination marketing fees in place do, to take them in a really transparent way.>>Asha: There’s no paper trail in Niagara, shouldn’t you be better protecting the consumers?>>You know what, if there’s an issue with consumer protection, if businesses in Niagara Falls are not looking after consumers, then I want to know about that, and I am concerned about that.>>Asha: We’ve been undercover twice now, and it is not transparent and in fact it’s gotten worse.>>Okay.>>Asha: Some businesses have hiked the fee, others are forcing visitors to pay this fee.>>I will tell you again–>>Asha: With no oversight.>>This is up to the municipality, and the councillors.>>Asha: So you don’t feel that you have any responsibility to look into and look into this?>>I will finish my sentence, if you will do me the courtesy allowing me to do that. You have a job to do. I’m answering your questions to the best of my ability. I am telling you what I know and here’s how it works. I will say it again. This is not administered by my ministry. It is not led by my ministry. It is not driven by my ministry. It is not a program of my ministry. I appreciate you bringing this to our attention and we’ll look into it. I also have not been contacted by the municipality so as a consequence of this, I will be talking to the mayor and looking at this. It is their responsibility to manage it, to collect it, and to do it in a responsible way.>>Asha: She encourages us to talk to Jim Diodati, the mayor of Niagara Falls. So that’s exactly what we do.>>First off, I’ll say this. It’s not a municipal fee. The municipality in no way can control this, regulate it, administer it. We have nothing to do with the fee. And obviously the provincial government has left it in a permissive type of way that businesses can charge it if they like.>>Asha: I have to tell you we’re getting mixed messages. You say this is nothing to do with the municipality. We spoke with the Minister of Tourism on the provincial level, she says she has nothing to do with this as well. In fact, she encouraged us to talk to you, and I just want to read some of her quote, some of what she told us during our interview. This is entirely led by the city and by the tourism authority in Niagara Falls. That’s just part. I can go on, but any reaction to that?>>It is a concern but when she says the municipality, the city per se, city hall per se, has zero jurisdiction over this. We have zero control.>>Asha: Just to read some more.>>Yes.>>Asha: It is their responsibility to manage it, to collect it, and to do it in a responsible way.>>I got ahold of her, Minister McMahon, and I did clear up, the fact that I said, to be clear, the city has absolutely no involvement in– however if you want to give us the authority, we’re happy to be involved, and we’re happy to help regulate, administer, and deal with this. Until such time, you know, we’re waiting for the province to either do something or direct us on how to do something.>>Asha: After our interview with the minister, she agrees it’s not up to the mayor to oversee the fee. The businesses are supposed to police themselves but that’s clearly not working. We’ve been following this story for a few years now, and it seems as though things have gone from bad to worse. So we went undercover a few weeks ago and discovered that some businesses are now hiking their fee again, some are saying that the fee is mandatory, forcing people to pay, what do you make of that?>>I whole-heartedly support a more transparent, more accountable way of dealing with this. I think definitely it’s confusing to people when there’s different rates, different charges, and different explanations. It would be nice if there’s more consistency as well.>>Asha: Mayor Diodati says he and Minister McMahon have agreed to meet and discuss some possible solutions to this problem. We’re going to keep following this story. Can we follow up with you as well?>>Absolutely. There’s a lot of people following this with interest. And at the end of the day our goal isn’t to make this go away. At the end of the day our goal is resolution that makes everyone happy.>>Asha: Check in this summer?>>Check in, check in either undercover or over the covers, whatever it’s going to be, but check in. [ Laughter ]>>Asha: Want a list of who charges and who doesn’t? Get it at

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