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On The Mend: Tourist Destinations Hope For Revival As Leisure Travel Ramps Up

Major tourist destinations are beginning to revive, buoyed by an increasing number of visitors. Hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues are looking to make up at least some ground with a year that looks more like 2019 than 2020.

But the path to recovery for places that depend heavily on tourists isn't going to be straightforward, tourism experts say. Destinations need to offer new attractions and emphasize familiarity and comfort — an antidote to last year's strangeness and discomfort — to persuade still-skittish vacationers to return this summer while navigating other challenges like fully restaffing.

Aquarium on the Boardwalk, a new tourist attraction in Branson, Missouri.

Tourism was one of the hardest-hit sectors of the U.S. economy in 2020. In 2019, travel and tourism represented 8.6% of U.S. GDP, or about $1.87 trillion, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. In 2020, the total shrank to 5.3% of U.S. GDP, or to about $1.1 trillion, a drop of more than 41%.

Destinations like Branson, Missouri, lost significant revenue, and organizations lobbying for their success had to pivot to make 2020 work. 

"Our theaters, restaurants and lodging took the biggest hit, with our city tourism tax collections down 34% for all of 2020 compared with 2019," Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Taney County Partnership spokeswoman Lynn Berry said.

"Our bounce back has started with a strong first quarter," Berry said, noting that tourism tax collections were up 415% in March 2021 compared with a year ago. 

Tourism employment cratered as well, as hotels closed or curtailed their business, restaurants and bars dealt with local and state pandemic-related restrictions, and entertainment venues were dark. About 16.5 million people worked in the travel and tourism industry in the United States in 2019, the WTTC reports. That was down to 11 million in 2020. Worldwide, 62 million jobs were lost in the sector.

"Countries such as Israel, the U.K. and U.S. have made great strides with vaccination programs, inoculating more than half of their populations, showing there is reason to be optimistic about the future," WTTC President and CEO Gloria Guevara said. 

“But now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal," she said. "We have to press for travel to resume faster to recover the jobs lost last year and the many millions more which continue to hang in the balance."

Early data on U.S. travel over the Memorial Day weekend points to a partial recovery for the industry, with an emphasis on road trips, and air travel recovering in a weaker position. The coronavirus pandemic impacted road travel on the Friday ahead of Memorial Day in 2020 compared with 2019, but not as much as expected, down only 13%, according to data on miles driven compiled by Advan Research Corp.

This year, travel on that Friday swelled by 65% compared with 2020 and 45% compared with 2019, a fact that driving-oriented destinations are trying to capitalize on.

Growth in air travel has been more sluggish, though it is higher than any time since March 2020. In May, an average of 1.6 million people per day passed through U.S. airport checkpoints, according to Transportation Security Administration data, still fewer than the 2.4 million people a day who went through checkpoints in May 2019.

Among those Americans now traveling for pleasure, there has been a shift away from visiting particular cities and toward resort destinations, Vox reports, citing Tripadvisor data. 

Arguably no local economy in the U.S. is more dependent on tourism than Las Vegas, and the pandemic's impact was unprecedented. In 2019, 42.5 million people came to the city, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data. Last year, 19 million did; that's the lowest level of visitor volume in 30 years. Room tax collections dropped year-over-year from $296.6M to $117.4M.

Early 2021 has been promising in terms of visitors to Las Vegas, though not touching 2019 levels. In April, the most recent month for which numbers are available, 2.57 million people came to the city, up vastly from fewer than 107,000 a year ago but still short of April 2019's 3.54 million visitors.

In April, there were still some restrictions on gatherings. On June 1, Clark County, Nevada, including the Las Vegas metro area, removed all pandemic-related restrictions involving large gatherings and indoor capacity, so the upcoming months will be the real test of the revival of the local tourist economy. That has businesses large and small anticipating better times.

“Our gross bookings in March were one of the best months in the company’s history, clearly backed by pent-up leisure and casino demand," MGM CEO Bill Hornbuckle said during the hotel and casino company's most recent earnings call in April, outlining MGM's strategy going forward. 

"We're proactively engaging more with our fly-in and 50-plus age demographic, and we've seen increased receptivity to travel from that group," Hornbuckle said. "It's been encouraging to see our rated 50-plus and higher-value players begin to return as well ... and in March, we did see — our 50-to-64 age segment was close to that of 2019 levels, and we saw a noticeable improvement in our 65-plus age segment as well."

The countless smaller businesses, many of them entertainment-oriented businesses that occupy retail space near the Las Vegas Strip and Downtown, also are optimistic about the return of tourists.

"There's definitely been a lot more traffic in the last few weeks," Anthony Draves, a front-desk manager and trainer at Axehole Vegas, an ax-throwing venue open for four years in the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown Las Vegas, told Bisnow. "It's mostly walk-ins. They see the signs and they think, 'I've never done that before.' So they come in. I'd say things are almost back to normal now."

With the reopening of Las Vegas come headaches. Workers are hard to find in some businesses, especially restaurants

"It’s been very challenging in every position to find people who are ready and available to work,” JRS Hospitality Managing Partner Matthew Silverman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The problem isn't unique to Las Vegas, though the squeeze might be tighter as tourists flood back to the city, expecting to enjoy the kind of service they used to receive at restaurants. In May, 72% of restaurant operators nationwide said their top operational challenge was recruiting and retaining employees, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association. That was up from 57% in April and is the highest reading in nearly 20 years, the association said.

Resorts World Las Vegas, a new casino in Las Vegas, opening in June 2021

Tourist destinations are opening new attractions, large and small, as a way of betting on the influx of travelers. At the larger end of the scale are new casinos preparing to open this year in Las Vegas: Circa Resort & Casino, Virgin Hotels Las Vegas and Resorts World Las Vegas. Their construction might have slowed during the pandemic, but it didn't stop.

Other places that depend on tourists are opening new attractions as well. In Branson, Missouri, Aquarium at the Boardwalk, which features more than 250 different animal species, opened late last year, and in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, what is claimed to be the world's only toy-themed mini golf operation opened in early June.

These tourist-dependent locations might not be as flashy as Las Vegas, but they have been hit as hard and are struggling to make a comeback this year. Branson has turned to a data-intensive marketing strategy, based on cellphone movement in and around its attractions, to get a sense of what kind of consumer is visiting what kind of attraction and why. 

"The company we work with is called Whysdom, and their research is effective to market to the right person at the right time with the right message from us," Branson's Berry said.

Branson, long a driving destination, has cemented itself as such during the pandemic when most people didn't want to fly, prompting the area to market more regionally as air travel has slowed, Berry said. The effort has been paying off, with much of the revival composed of visitors from fairly nearby.

"We peppered our social media platforms late last year and produced a series of 30-minute television specials with our NBC affiliate that aired in our 19-county area," Berry said. "That's our core market, people who live two or maybe three hours away."

Beginning in the fall and around Christmas, people from that area began returning, though visitors never completely stopped coming to Branson, even during the summer of 2020. With its lakes and other outdoor activities, social distancing was still possible in the area, though the shows Branson is famous for had temporarily been put on hold.

Branson isn't alone in playing up its drivability factor. Pigeon Forge is a tourist-oriented town near Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is stressing its drivable location.

"We are off to a very strong tourism season in 2021, as tourism revenue reported by our businesses during the first quarter of 2021 surpassed the record revenues reported during the same period in 2019," Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism Executive Director Leon Downey said.

"We rely on traditional and digital marketing to reach new and returning visitors," Downey said. "Like all vacation destinations, we compete for our visitors' discretionary income, so we make every effort to keep the Pigeon Forge top of mind for consumers. We focus our efforts primarily on major markets in the southeast U.S., focusing on those for whom Pigeon Forge is a drive destination."

Wisconsin Dells, a Midwest destination that has long focused on family-oriented entertainment, especially water parks, is likewise banking on a revival this year, with marketing efforts that stress the comfort of the destination. 

"With current travel trends as they are, and through our own research insights, we believe there's a pent-up demand for travel, and people will choose Wisconsin Dells for several reasons, especially familiarity and proximity," Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau Communications Manager Leah Hauck-Mills said.

"The messaging of our marketing campaigns are crafted from national and internal research results so the message can be refined through various mediums, with a heavy focus on digital and streaming," Hauck-Mills said. "We're continuing to expand our reach through various social media efforts, since we know that flight hesitancy continues for leisure travel and we’re an easy drive-to destination."

Like in all tourist destinations, businesses in the Dells, including smaller hospitality, restaurant and entertainment venues, are counting on a revival this year.

"We're just now starting to open our rooms," Thunder Valley Inn co-owner Anita Nelson said. "It's been very difficult, and I'm not a kid anymore."

The property is a 10-room bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin Dells. 

"We still aren't taking anybody who hasn't their vaccination," Nelson said. "But we need to reopen. The money hasn't been coming in over the last year, but the bills have."