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Impact and Outreach

The Impact of COVID-19 on Tourism

Passport and camera on top of a map

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, cases continue to rise across the country. There isn’t one industry unaffected, and tourism is no exception. From canceled weddings and festivals to less dining out, the world has taken a hit from the large decline in tourism. The U.S. alone has seen more than $297 billion in losses from the decrease in travel since the beginning of March. 

However, as the summer months push on and people look for any excuse to leave their houses, tourism is making a comeback – for better or worse. “The tourism industry is undoubtedly changing, but people still want to travel. And tourism research is seeing that wanderlust desire,” says Hailey Post, a graduate student in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. “We need to remain mindful of the millions of people who work in the tourism industry and understand that changes in the industry directly affect individuals who depend on tourism.”

It’s important to note that tourism doesn’t have to only be a trip across the country or flying abroad. ”Tourism” can be visiting your local farmer’s market, eating at a restaurant close to home or hiking at a state park on the weekend. 

To help us understand the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry, Post and Dr. Whitney Knollenberg, associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, compiled the latest data and resources for travelers. 

Shifting From Business as Usual 

What is there to do when a health crisis uproots an entire industry? The industry adapts. 

“Tourism marketing and hospitality industries are looking for innovative and creative solutions to the current challenges brought on by COVID-19,” says Post. Destinations and events are now hosted online for consumers to stream, rather than visit in-person. Groups like Pearl Jam and Zac Brown Band are hosting online concerts and festivals to raise money for charitable causes.  Michele Obama even partnered with The Roots and others during The Roots Picnic to encourage voters to cast their ballots this year. 

With the help of companies like Airbnb, short-term rentals are on the rise. Surprisingly, the Smoky Mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina is among the top three U.S. tourist destinations during the pandemic. Vacationers feel safer staying at a private house than a hotel. Mountain destinations provide easier access to socially-distanced outdoor activities, too. 

While air travel declines, 67% of Americans say they will be more likely to travel by road than plane this year. Many vacationers also feel more comfortable going somewhere they’re already familiar with, rather than visiting a new place. For North Carolinians, traveling to the beach seems familiar, convenient and safe, according to Outer Banks realtors. Property management companies there have reported 99% to full capacity this summer. 

Hotels have felt the need to be creative after experiencing a $40 billion loss in room revenue. Some hotels started offering daytime rates for workers who needed an office space to concentrate. Rather than offering beds, some hotels have offered spaces to conduct meetings and work free from distractions (and possible sickness) found in office settings. 

Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) are an important tool in promoting attractions, places and events. “DMOs have always been supportive of one another but as soon as the pandemic came to the U.S., the camaraderie was even stronger,” says Ann Savage, an NC State Tourism Extension associate. “Forums were created for open conversations about how to address the changing nature of the pandemic and the obvious effects of the travel industry.” Savage says that DMOs had to quickly reconfigure their marketing plans both for travelers and for the hotels and businesses that rely on tourism. 

Above all, businesses that remain open are training employees to be “safe, cautious and empowered,” says Post. Employees are now responsible for cleaning surfaces and items to ensure their customers’ safety. NC State Extension has helped create a state-wide program called Count On Me NC to encourage guests and businesses to keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Businesses in the free program can get their staff certified in the latest health precautions. Customers can also search for participating businesses to support.

Going Outdoors 

Coupled with hesitant feelings toward air travel and hotel stays, health officials reported that being outside is safer than gathering indoors. As people seek any safe opportunity to leave their homes, parks and recreation areas have experienced a significant boost in visits. N.C. State Parks have received two to three times more visitors than in normal peak weekend hours. Experts suggest outdoor activity during isolation and quarantine (and during normal times) to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

Unfortunately, with an increase in visitation, some parks have experienced destruction and crowding. Some national parks are being overrun by first-time visitors who don’t practice the Leave No Trace principles many parks embrace. Trash has littered the trails, dog poop is left for the next hiker to step in, and some areas have seen more graffiti on natural landscapes. On the Fourth of July weekend, eight N.C. State Parks reached capacity even before 10:30 a.m. Excess visitors were turned away or asked to stay in their car until the park could allow more visitors. Park managers continue to report this occurring every weekend. 

Parks and recreation areas, like businesses, are keeping a close eye on orders for staying home and protocols for reopening. As of late July, most N.C. State Parks, trails and restrooms are open, with the exception of playgrounds and indoor facilities like visitor centers. While coordinating summer camps and prepping for after-school programs, parks and recreation professionals are also preparing for the expected second wave in the fall. 

Travelers crowd Myrtle Beach in South Carolina during the pandemic. Photo by Josh Bell at The Sun News.
Travelers crowd Myrtle Beach in South Carolina during the pandemic. Photo by Josh Bell at The Sun News. 

Seeing All Sides of the Story

Times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic often reinforce and exacerbate existing disparities in wealth and health. “The inequalities in the service industry that disproportionately affect individuals from marginalized backgrounds are especially highlighted, as many workers are considered essential,” explains Post.

Vulnerable workers are more likely to be people of color, women and those with pre-existing health conditions. “As more research emerges on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting vulnerable communities, we have to keep our tourism service workers in mind,” says Post. “Many of these service workers, who are the backbone of the tourism industry, were already vulnerable to economic and structural inequalities in the United States pre-pandemic.”

The United Nations World Tourism Organization, a leader in travel ethics and sustainability, released a statement on vulnerable workers during COVID-19. “Tourism activities should respect the equality of men and women; they should promote human rights and, more particularly, the individual rights of the most vulnerable groups, notably children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples,” the statement read.

“Efforts such as the NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund continue to support service industry members who need financial assistance,” Knollenberg said. “The fund is supported by donations and corporate sponsorships and is still accepting funds to help those impacted by COVID closures.”

“It is crucial that we continue to advocate for the protection of our tourism service workers who may find themselves at a higher risk,” Post says. She also hopes that when the world emerges from the pandemic, those in power come together to build a more equitable tourism industry.

Traveling Responsibly

If you’ve still got the travel bug and want to support the tourism industry close to home or far away, we have some tips to help you be sustainable, safe, and healthy. These were adapted from the Travel Care Code developed by Knollenberg. 

  • Learn about your destination: Do your homework before you travel to ensure you know what COVID-related restrictions are in the destination you are visiting.
  • Be a good guest: Remember that you are a guest at your destination. Practice proper pandemic etiquette by complying with local restrictions, maintaining social distance, wearing a mask and washing your hands frequently. To go the extra mile when traveling in N.C., take the Count On Me pledge as a guest.
  • Support locals: When traveling, keep your dollars in the communities you visit. Get takeout from locally-owned restaurants or find your souvenirs at a local gallery or shop. These businesses need your support now more than ever. This also applies to staycations! Grab local takeout, support neighborhood coffee shops and buy locally-made artisan goods.
  • Protect your natural surroundings: Traveling to a state park or natural area? Remember to stay on the designated trails, avoid disturbing wildlife and dispose of your trash properly. 

To stay up-to-date with the latest data on the tourism industry during COVID-19, visit Destination Analysts.