SALISBURY – With COVID-19 restrictions easing, more people vaccinated, and several major events scheduled for the remainder of the year, James Meacham said the Rowan County’s tourism industry is starting to recover.
While the industry is on the right track, Rowan County’s tourism director said it is still a long way from recovering. In this case recovered would mean something close to the tourism industry’s record year 2019, when the state generated better tourism revenues than ever before.
The stark contrast between the state’s impressive 2019 and the pandemic-ravaged 2020 was highlighted in the Annual report on tourism spending published last week by the NC Department of Commerce. The report shows that domestic travelers spent $ 19.7 billion in the state in 2020, a 29.5% decrease from 2019 when domestic travelers spent a record $ 27.9 billion. International travelers spent just $ 268 million in 2020, a drop of a whopping 79.4% from 2019.
Federal, state and local taxes generated by travelers in 2020 were $ 3 billion, down 26.6% year over year. State tax revenue from domestic visitor spending decreased 26.4% in 2020, and local tax revenue decreased 21% to $ 906.4 million.
With fewer travelers visiting the state and spending money, many tourism-dependent businesses are reducing their seasonal and full-time employees. In 2020, North Carolina direct tourism employment decreased 26.4% to 178,700 and direct tourism payroll decreased 24.5% to $ 6.4 billion.
Figures released by the state showed the impact the pandemic had on the North Carolina tourism industry, but the impact on Rowan County won’t be fully known until the county-by-county report is released later this year.
Meacham said he expected Rowan County’s 2020 numbers to decline from a record $ 174 million in 2019 sales. Meacham said he was more optimistic about the numbers for 2021 as restaurants, hotels and cultural centers have started welcoming more guests back.
When local tourism picks up again, companies face several challenges in getting back to normal. Local hotels, for example, will continue to work out of a financial hole caused by the pandemic.
“At that time last year properties were down 50-60% (sales) on average, and now you’re looking at 15-20%,” Meacham said. “These are still significant losses. If you went down from 60% to 20%, you went up 40% but decreased 20%. That’s a lot of what we see. “
From the start of the pandemic through the end of March, Meacham said the hotel sector alone lost $ 6.3 million in revenue and is well on its way to losing just over $ 7 million by June 30.
Cultural institutions try to return even from large loss of income.
“If you look at our major institutions like the Piedmont Players, Salisbury Symphony, Waterworks, Lee Street Theater and the Historic Salisbury Foundation, program revenue has lost well over $ 1 million in this current period,” said Meacham.
Like many industries across the country, Meacham said, hotels, restaurants and cultural institutions are also struggling to hire staff.
“We have a labor shortage in some companies that want to recover, whether they are the transportation museum and employees or a hotel trying to get workers to come back,” Meacham said.
Kelly Alexander, director of the NC Transportation Museum, said the facility has currently lost four full-time positions. While the museum has been busy enough lately to warrant hiring these positions, museum officials are waiting to see if a steady source of income continues, according to Alexander.
“You want to be able to have everyone there, but then you don’t want to put yourself in the position where if something happened and there was a setback, you’d have to roll back,” said Alexander.
Meacham said he noticed that some chain restaurants are offering incentives to recruit workers, while hotels have started to step up their recruiting efforts through targeted hiring events.
Local hotels and restaurants will continue to support their staff as some of the county’s busiest tourism months draw near.
The Cheerwine Festival, pushed back from its original May 15th date, will take place downtown on September 18th. The festival, Meacham said, provides brand awareness for the city and is likely to generate over $ 1 million in visitor and consumer spending.
The ever-popular Day Out With Thomas at the NC Transportation Museum will take place on weekends from September 24th to 26th and October 1st to 3rd this year. Between the day trip With Thomas and the museum’s Polar Express train ride, which will run from mid-November to mid-December, the county has seen a $ 8 million increase in tourism-related spending.
Meacham mentioned the Fall Anniversary, canceled last year, and the October tour, which went virtual last year, as fall events that could bring additional tourism spending back to the county.
The goal for all tourism-dependent businesses and non-profit organizations is to return to 2019.
“We try to have the best possible experience for people and to make them feel comfortable when they visit,” said Alexander. “Everything that has to do with tourism is the same for all of us. We all want to go back to 2019. “