BUFFALO, N.Y. — An afternoon on Old Falls Street felt like a pre-pandemic summer.
Food carts were bustling with customers. Lines of people waited for a scenic bus tour of Niagara Falls State Park. Families and couples from a variety of countries were soaking in the views the Cataract City has to offer.
Also bustling, the new jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as 528,000 jobs were added in July. A deeper dive into the data shows individual sector growth, hotel and leisure jobs added 96,000 jobs.
While promising, over 1.2 million jobs haven't returned to that sector since February of 2020, when pandemic lockdowns and closures began. The impact of that labor shortage is being felt in Western New York.
"There's definitely an opportunity in the leisure and hospitality sector, opportunities still abound," said Christian Harris, a labor market analyst for the NYS Department of Labor. "There's a lot of job openings still in the pipeline."
Over a thousand, just in Western New York, according to Patrick Kaler, president & CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
"Our residents, as well as our visitors, can see that there are labor shortages," Kaler said. "Salaries and pay scales are going up in the tourism and hospitality industry, we just need to get people back into that workforce."
The tourism industry in Western New York also hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels.
"On a non-pandemic year, we would be welcoming about 9 million visitors to our destination on an annual basis," Kaler said.
According to Visit Buffalo Niagara, June through September is the peak tourism season.
"Right now through the month of June, our hotel occupancy is down about 10.5%"
Airport and cross-border traffic are also down.
"We're down about 22% on overall airport traffic and about 46% on cross-border traffic," Kaler said.
Another kerfuffle that could impact tourism in the region is the rather sudden increase in border bridge toll prices.
"That was a complete surprise to all of us," Kaler said.
There is optimism, while tourism is down, it's not non-existent.
"Last week, our hotels for all of Erie County had an 81% occupancy rates," Kaler said. "So that's very encouraging that people are coming, especially when our overall airport traffic and cross border traffic is down.
VBN is also booking up the convention center, which is currently going through façade reconstruction. Most recently, the New York State bar exam was held, with 3,000 participants traveling into the region to take the test.
"That was a great boost into the arm of our overall economy," Kaler said "We're booking pieces of business and to 2025, 2027, and into 2028 as well.