(Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels)
The tourism industry collapsed in 2020 as the global pandemic brought travel to a grinding halt. According to the U.S. Travel Association, economic impacts from March 2020 through mid-December 2020 resulted in over $500 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. Travel economy. This equates to a daily loss of approximately $1.75B over a nine-and-a-half-month period.
Sectors of the tourism industry that were most severely impacted include urban areas, the cruise, airline and restaurant industries. International and business travel have also been on pause. Destinations that rely heavily on these sectors have been seriously impacted.
On a regional level, the tourism outlook has been less bleak than the national forecast. Consumer interest in road trips and visiting resorts, mountain towns and destinations with less density have been impacted to a lesser degree. Destinations like Central Oregon have attracted an increasing number of visitors choosing a road trip for a safe getaway during the pandemic while air travel has been down.
Strong demand to our region is driven by our access to outdoor recreation and scenic beauty as well as the ability to socially distance outdoors. Visitors are seeking safe environments to spend time with their family or quarantine pod. While hotel occupancy is down overall, demand for vacation rentals has increased during the pandemic. With more people working and learning remotely, increased occupancy and longer stays in vacation rentals is a trend that will most likely continue through 2021. This demand has helped the region fare better than anticipated.
The tourism outlook for 2021 will most likely be a slow rebound from normal travel volume. Recent data from Destination Analysts shows that while anxiety around the pandemic is at a high, travelers are also starting to feel light at the end of the tunnel based on the distribution and efficacy of the vaccine. This more hopeful outlook for the future has increased excitement about travel in 2021. In their most recent survey (January 25, 2021), 22 percent of travelers (one in five) say that they will travel more in 2021 to make up for lost time. Another 50 percent confirm they will return to their normal pre-pandemic levels of travel. There is definitely a sense of optimism and pent-up demand for travel that will aid in tourism recovery.
The availability and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine remain the main factor in American’s return to travel. In the same survey, two-thirds of American travelers indicate that the vaccine is making them more optimistic about returning to normal in the next six months. Nearly 60 percent feel more optimistic about traveling safely in this same time period.
As travel rebounds, so will the competition amongst travel destinations to attract visitors. Visit Central Oregon has been working to keep the region top of mind by creating inspiring content and providing responsible messaging around travel. We are currently working on a recovery plan to re-engage travelers to plan their future visit. The marketing plan includes optimizing our website with research-backed content that we know potential visitors are searching for. We’re expanding elements of our brand that are showing strong growth in visitor interest including culinary experiences, outdoor recreation and the arts.
As part of our efforts to responsibly market the region, we’re proactively promoting safe experiences and destination stewardship. Our video series, Take Care Out There, in collaboration with Discover Your Forest and Travel Oregon, will educate people on how to respect our natural wonders while recreating in the region. Featuring local ambassadors, the videos share messages about trail etiquette, fire safety, equity, litter and garbage and more.
Visit Central Oregon is continuing to innovate on how we attract visitors and ways they can experience the region. The hospitality industry has also worked tirelessly to keep visitors safe with new standards of cleaning, social distancing protocols and touchless technologies. These new standards are likely to continue in 2021 and beyond.
I remain cautiously optimistic for the future of tourism and a renewed sense of excitement and safety to return to travel. Visitors will continue to seek out the natural places and scenic beauty, culinary experiences and arts and culture that the region offers.