Tourism is back.

There are enough out-of-town visitors to produce winding car lines in the arrivals area of ​​Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Wait 45 minutes for a table at Elizabeth Street Cafe on Sundays at 3pm and a record number of Lake Travis party boat bookings. Only this week all levels of tickets for ACL sold out for both weekends within three hours of release.

“It just feels like there’s been something of a sigh in the past two to four weeks,” said Tom Noonan, President and CEO of Visit Austin. “We may see normal again.”

Not all has recovered, however. Although weekend leisure tourism – think bachelorette parties, live music and anniversary celebrations – is approaching pre-pandemic levels, business tourism, which fills hotel rooms and restaurant-dining rooms during the week, is still on the sidelines. “I think ’22 is going to feel a lot more normal than ’20 or ’21,” Noonan said, but he estimates full recovery is about three years away.

The good news

The return of weekend tourism can already be felt. This is reflected in downtown pedestrian activity, which has been increasing since mid-February, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance. COO Julie Fisk speculates that this increase was due to a combination of factors: warming weather, access to vaccines, and return of weekend visitors. “I would call it half of what it would normally have been in the years before the pandemic, but definitely an increase in the low level of pedestrian activity we saw during the peak of the pandemic,” she told Austonia.

Visitor activity in the city center is increasing. (Downtown Austin Alliance)

Fisk believes summer will be a crucial time for continued recovery, as residents and visitors alike will feel comfortable when they return to normal life. “Now it’s really about consumer trust and making people feel safe and that it’s a healthy thing to go out and enjoy the things we all loved before the pandemic,” she said.

Some companies are already benefiting from weekend tourists. Mod Bikes, an electric bike store on South First Street, saw increased demand for electric bike rentals in mid-February, which are run almost entirely by tourists. “It’s gotten so crazy in the last two months that we just had to stop renting our website because we just couldn’t keep up,” said Managing Partner Mike Cherches.

Mod Bikes, an electric bike store in South Austin, has seen record demand for its rental equipment in recent months. (Mod Bikes / Instagram)

The bad news

Despite these improvements, the Austin tourism industry is unlikely to recover as quickly as it collapsed from the pandemic.

Visit Austin booked 43,000 hotel room nights in April, a sharp increase from March when it booked around 10,000 but still not hit pre-pandemic levels when it averaged 63,000 per month, Noonan said.

Since the pandemic began, Visit Austin 540 tour groups have canceled nearly 650,000 hotel room nights, representing a loss of approximately $ 180 million in revenue and a tax loss of nearly $ 20 million. This does not apply to tourism not affiliated with Visit Austin such as SXSW, ACL and the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.

Even so, Noonan is optimistic. Before the pandemic, Visit Austin developed a new campaign. The slogan? AUSTIN: It’s a lot better to live. “That was a great pre-pandemic campaign,” he said. “Now it’s even more resonant.”

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