The impacts of the lingering COVD-19 pandemic can be seen in virtually every area of the U.S. economy, but perhaps the effects are no more visible than in the travel and tourism industry.
Travel spending totaled $679 billion in 2020, an unprecedented 42% annual decline — nearly $500 billion — from 2019, the U.S. Travel Association reported.
In Northeast Arkansas, travel expenditures declined precipitously in 2020 due to the pandemic, but a number of those involved in local tourism and travel endeavors see a pent-up demand that they expect soon will be released.
The city of Jonesboro collects a 3% hotel-motel tax, a so-called bed tax that does not extend to prepared food as similar hospitality taxes do in some other Arkansas cities. Jerry Morgan is chairman of the Jonesboro Advertising and Promotion Commission that awards grants to local organizations seeking to attract visitors who will spend time and money in the city. The city collects the tax, receives grants applications and performs other record-keeping and duties for the commission, so it has virtually no overhead, Morgan said. So when the pandemic-forced decline in revenues occurred, it didn’t hit Jonesboro’s A&P as hard as it might have others, he said.
“Fortunately, even though we did have a significant downturn in collections our collections were as a percentage not as far off as many other A&Ps, so we were able to scale back in our funding on projects,” Morgan said. “We had some projects that were near the end of funding anyway and so we were just not able to fund as many new projects as we would like to have funded. In that regard, we have a pretty soft landing. All things considered, we’re very lucky in that regard.”
The city collected $565,552 from the 3% hotel tax in 2020, down from 2019’s collection of $691,487.
Morgan said there are two different segments that have been primary targets for attracting gatherings to Northeast Arkansas’ largest city. Those are sporting events — primarily baseball and softball tournaments — and conventions.
“You can kind of see when the pandemic started” by viewing a revenue chart. In March, he said, “tournaments just got canceled because we didn’t know how to have a tournament with the restrictions in the guidelines or even what the restrictions were going to be.”
In the middle of the summer, he said, the city was able to reschedule some softball tournaments but it was too late for rescheduling baseball because high school ball was about to begin.
“Even if we have lingering effects of the pandemic late into 2021, we will feel like we’ll have sporting tournaments. We feel like we’ll have a pickup there as well on the tourism side. Before, we had very few conventions because we didn’t have the space,” he said.
Springfield, Mo.-based O’Reilly Hospitality, however, built an Embassy Suites hotel and on-premise Red Wolf Convention Center that opened in early 2019 and was expected to host a number of conventions and other events. The pandemic hit just about the time the hotel opened. As a result, many events planned for the center were canceled.
Kraig Pomrenke, general manager of the hotel, said most of the convention business the hotel had booked that was canceled by COVID has been rebooked.
“Most of them just postponed until another date. For the most part, I think we’ll eventually get all that business back — we’re close to being where we were before. The group business is a big part of our business,” Pomrenke noted, adding that it will return when people feel comfortable gathering in groups.
Amy Cantin, co-owner of Jonesboro Travel, Cruise and Tour, a full-service travel agency, said the travel industry at present “is an ever-changing landscape.”
“It’s an evolving situation in this kind of climate. One day we’re told, ‘Here are the restrictions,’ and then the next day the CDC comes along and changes them,” she said.
She and business partner Larinda Rainwater never dreamed last year at this time that travel would come to such an abrupt halt and remain so through 2020 with many restrictions still in place in the first quarter of 2021, Cantin said.
“We just assumed we’d be up and running by mid-July. We rescheduled many tours and vacations for the spring of 2021, assuming that everything would be where it needed to be for travel. It’s a bit shocking that so many things have been delayed. Many hotels and cruise lines and many people in our industry are trying to hang on because there are better days to come,” Cantin said.
She noted that 2019 was an “amazing” year. “We were well on our way for 2020 to be another banner year. We got a couple of trips in, and then everything slammed shut,” Cantin said.
The uncertain travel landscape has underscored the value of using a professional travel agent, she said. She advises potential clients to “book early, use an agent and 100% take out trip insurance.”
The last segment of the leisure travel industry to come back, she believes, will be the cruise industry.
“We’ve had cruises on the books for more than a year,” she said.
For example, a Hawaii cruise planned for March of 2020 had been pushed forward to 2021 and now will likely not take place until at least mid-summer, she said. Cruises will return when conditions are improved and safety protocols are in place, she said.
“The vaccine is the biggie that will make people resume travel. A lot of our clients are 50 and older. Once they get vaccines in everybody’s arms, the industry can move forward. We know that good things are on the horizon. Better days are ahead for our industry and the traveling public. Our clients are just ready to go somewhere, ready to get out of their house and go on a trip,” Cantin said.
Adam Long, director of Heritage Sites for Arkansas State University, said the four sites — The Pfeiffer-Hemingway House at Piggott; Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village; the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza; and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and Museum at Dyess — usually record 55,000 to 60,000 visitors annually.
“We were shut down approximately five months completely. Then, the first of August, we reopened and since then we’ve been able to do drop-ins, but we’ve not been able to do big groups. That’s a large part of what we normally do during the school year. Individual tourism is down a bit, but people are coming back,” Long said.
The Heritage Sites program has produced educational content for schools in the past year, he said.
“We have been working on ways to make our programming available both virtually and as educational packets used by teachers or students. We’ve been increasing the number of classrooms we ‘Zoom’ into. We’re hoping that students will come back when it’s time,” he said.