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11 February 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:25am

Covid-19 is a disaster for tourism – but not everywhere

Outdoor recreation has been a lifeline for some smaller cities, which have fared better in terms of leisure and hospitality job retention than larger tourism hubs.

By New Statesman

Nearly all US cities have been experiencing record low employment across all industries, with leisure and hospitality employment suffering the most.  

According to New Statesman analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, traditional US tourism destinations such as Kahului, Hawaii, New York City, New York and Boston, Massachusetts, saw average monthly employment reductions of 50 per cent to 65 per cent in the leisure and hospitality industry from June to October compared to the same period in 2019.

But not every area is experiencing such dismal downturns in employment associated with tourism and entertainment. In fact, some metro areas have seen upticks.

Out of the 356 US metro areas with leisure and hospitality data available, 18 show average monthly increases in employment for June to October 2020 when compared to the same months in 2019. Nearly all of those metro areas have small or mid-sized populations, with the exception of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is considered a large metro area. Lancaster experienced the smallest increase in leisure and hospitality employment (0.27 per cent) of the 18 metros that recorded average monthly increases.

Nearly all areas that saw increased leisure and hospitality employment during Covid were small and mid-sized metros
Leisure and hospitality employment, January 2019 to November 2020.
BLS SAE

The average change in leisure and hospitality employment for all 356 metro areas was 20 per cent. But metros such as Carson City in Nevada, Pueblo in Colorado and Idaho Falls, Idaho, saw 14, 16 and 20 per cent increases respectively. While larger tourism hubs are still suffering, smaller areas near bigger cities with strong links to outdoor recreation are managing better. 

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Benefits from national parks 

Proximity to national parks and other outdoor recreation has provided a lifeline for some metros.

“While the shutdown in spring hurt our hospitality industry, Idaho has done a great job of keeping businesses open throughout the pandemic, making our city a popular destination for pandemic refuges from California, Arizona and Washington states,” said Chip Schwarze, the CEO of the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce.

Idaho Falls lies about 170 kilometres south-west of Yellowstone National Park and about 210 kilometres west of Grand Teton National Park. Known as the “gateway to Yellowstone”, it is the last major city a traveller would drive through on the way to the park from cities such as San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona.

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Yellowstone recorded a 6 per cent increase in park visitors between June and October 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. With domestic air travel still down 63 per cent in September 2020 against its all-time high in January 2020, it is likely that many of Yellowstone’s visitors were driving there. 

Schwarze says that the opening of a new hotel and a new convention centre during the summer of 2020 may account for much of the increased leisure and hospitality employment for Idaho Falls. In addition to its 20 per cent increase in leisure and hospitality employment, the metro also experienced an 8 per cent bump in retail employment and a 4 per cent rise in overall employment – the largest increase of any metro. 

Idaho Falls metro area is small, with just over 150,000 people according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. Analysis of employment data along with population data for US metro areas shows that small and mid-sized metros have fared better during the pandemic in terms of leisure and hospitality job retention than larger ones.

Small and midsize metros saw smaller drops in leisure and hospitality employment
Average change in employment, June-October 2020 compared with the same months in 2019.
BLS SAE

Leisure and hospitality data is not available for all metro areas across the US. However, other metros that experienced increases in overall employment are also positioned near popular national parks.

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Staunton, Virginia, is a small metro area of 123,120 residents located 45 kilometres west of the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park. For the months of June to October 2020, Staunton experienced an average monthly employment increase of 0.7 per cent, the fifth highest increase among all US metros. 

Outdoor recreation-based tourism surge

In addition to national parks, other outdoor recreation opportunities have drawn Americans out of their houses and into nature during the pandemic. As a result, the areas surrounding those outdoor havens aren’t experiencing the same levels of economic downturn as larger, more urban areas.

David Peterson, executive director at Visit Carson City, suggested places such as Carson City, Nevada, didn’t suffer as much of a hit as, for example, areas like Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, because their economies aren’t as dependent on international tourists, visitors who arrive by plane and convention centre revenues.

As Covid-19 raged through the summer and autumn, Carson City, a small metro area of 56,000 people on the east bank of picturesque Lake Tahoe, enjoyed the opening of several restaurants and its first new hotel in ten years. Although it is still experiencing revenue shortages, Carson City is also welcoming many visitors from neighbouring states coming to take advantage of its proximity to prime outdoor recreation.

An over-dependence on tourism 

Though outdoor recreation has been a lifeline for some smaller metro areas in the US during the pandemic, tourism officials in those areas are still aware that over-dependence on any one industry is not sustainable. If too many jobs rely on a single revenue stream, any disruption – whether it’s a natural disaster, a pandemic or the swift creep of climate change and extreme weather – can have an outsized economic impact.

US tourism hubs such as Hawaii and Atlantic City, New Jersey, are currently experiencing the strain of over-dependence on tourism. The Kahului metro area on the Hawaiian island of Maui saw average leisure and hospitality employment for June to October 2020 fall by 65 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. Overall employment in the metro fell by 28 per cent.

Hawaii metros are recovering hospitality jobs more slowly than other US metros
Leisure and hospitality employment, January 2019 to November 2020.
BLS SAE

Even without air travel limitations, mainland tourism-dependent cities like Las Vegas, Nevada, have experienced slower recovery than the average US city and much slower recovery than other cities in the state of Nevada.

But, though Carson City and the Tahoe area have experienced a more minimised economic downturn during the pandemic than larger tourism-dependent cities, economic leaders in the area are still concerned. Heidi Hill Drum, who is CEO of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, sees diversifying Tahoe’s economy as a pressing issue.

Nevada’s largest, most tourism-dependent metro has seen the slowest recovery
Leisure and hospitality employment, January 2019 to November 2020.
BLS SAE

“We’ll always be tourism-related, but how can we start to expand the other sectors of our economy so that we’re not 62 per cent dependent on tourism?” asked Drum.

Drum pointed not only to Covid, but to economic equality issues and climate change as clear reasons why economies should be diversified. 

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“As a thriving community, you want people in jobs that have benefits, that are year-round and [that] provide a living wage,” Drum said. “Many of those tourism jobs do not.”

A path forward in sustainable recreation

Climate change is taking a toll on Tahoe’s outdoor recreation industry. Raising water temperatures kill marine life and affect lake clarity. Increased rain events and air temperatures reduce the area’s snow supply, pulling revenue from ski resorts that depend on the snow to provide sports and recreation.

Additionally, Drum says that, over the years, Tahoe has seen more short-term trips to the area. She says climate change is driving more people out of cities and to the lake for short, one- or two-day trips.

But short-term visits from nearby cities such as Sacramento and San Francisco mean more miles driven on the roads and more boats on the lake which lead to more air and water pollution. Short-term trips also mean fewer ski passes sold, fewer bikes rented for the weekend, reduced hotel tax revenue and fewer purchases at local businesses.

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For areas like Tahoe, sustainable recreation might be a way forward. This involves developing a recreation industry that accounts for environmental preservation, economic stability and societal well-being for both present and future populations.

Building green or eco-friendly lodgings such as the Soneva Fushi Resort in the Maldives and investing in zero-emissions transportation methods such as the Niagra Falls Maiden of the Mist’s new electric ferries are examples of sustainable recreation.

But sustainability is expensive for cities, companies and visitors. The cost of a single night at Soneva Fushi is USD $2,590. And that’s for the cheapest room. Modernising transportation methods can cost billions per project and can require legislative changes to make them feasible.

And, of course, every financial roadblock has been made that much harder to overcome due to Covid. Cities around the globe are facing crippling budget cuts that will leave them struggling to afford even basic services for their residents. Increased unemployment worldwide has stripped many people’s travel budgets.

But Drum is hopeful. She said we need to see Covid as an opportunity to do things differently, to do things better and to balance our cities.