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Travel destinations stay visible during pandemic

Tourism officials want you to dream of a vacation during your coronavirus confinement.

They’re using everything from bingo to live webcams to keep you engaged. And they’re renovating and reaching out to prospective visitors during the pandemic as they prepare for your return.

But it may take more than that. The World Tourism Organization had projected that international tourism arrivals would grow 3% to 4% this year. It now estimates that arrivals could plummet by 20% to 30% because of the novel coronavirus. That’s a loss of $30 billion to $50 billion in spending.

Guy Antognelli, general manager of the Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority, has two focuses for the principality’s comeback.

“We’re making sure to keep Monaco in the minds and dreams of people currently confined in their home,” he says. “Simultaneously, we’re working on our rebound plan.”

That seems to be the idea for most tourism destinations. But how do you draw people to you when you’re so far away? How do you plan for a rebound that may or may not come?

“These are dark days,” says Jamie Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. “But we do know the sun will soon shine again on Los Angeles.”

One way to keep people thinking about LA is through social media. The tourism bureau has encouraged Angelenos to post photos using the hashtag #LAthroughMyWindow to highlight the beauty of Southern California. Among the contributions are snapshots of California sunsets and beaches and the recent supermoon. Similar social media initiatives are underway in New York and San Francisco.

In Reno, Nevada, and the Lake Tahoe area, tourism officials have been promoting virtual visits through a network of live webcams. You can gaze at the empty ski slopes of Northstar in California and Mount Rose in Nevada, or the almost undisturbed lakeside of Kings Beach, California. Tourism officials have also encouraged hotels and resorts to share more pictures and videos with the world, reminding people that they’re still here.

“If there’s one thing that Reno Tahoe is good at, it’s renaissance,” Reno Tahoe spokeswoman Cathy Decker says.

Many attractions have made their virtual tours more elaborate. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a Gilded Age (late 19th-century) estate on Biscayne Bay near Miami, is promoting a 360-degree tour that lets viewers see and hear more than they would in person. Click on the display and you can listen to the rustling leaves and the flowing water of the mangrove-covered shoreline. A room fills with organ music, and users can zoom in on the tiniest detail of the Italian furniture.

A lot of forward-looking destinations have rolled all these initiatives into a single page. Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism, an organization representing resort islands near Seattle, has a site full of engaging videos about matters of interest ranging from orcas to bees. It’s encouraging aspiring travelers to create some online buzz by reposting them using the tagline #Escapeitall.

Destination DC, a nonprofit that supports Washington tourism, has a microsite, DCTogether, with links to social media initiatives and virtual tours during the coronavirus lockdown. You can find out which hotels are still open or play DC’s Social Distancing Bingo, an online game that connects you to what’s happening in the nation’s capital.

But what about rebound plans? Behind the scenes, attractions and hotels are getting ready for what they hope will be a quick return to normal.

In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, officials have taken advantage of the empty beaches to do some deep cleaning. A fleet of custom-designed tractors, used to sanitize the shoreline after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, is digging up driftwood and other debris to prepare the beaches for summer.

“In interesting irony, the estimated peak day for the virus in Alabama happened 10 years to the day the oil spill started,” says Kay Maghan, a spokeswoman for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.

At the RT Lodge, a 57-room boutique hotel in Maryville, Tennessee, the staff is spending the downtime getting ready for the coming season.

“We’re pressure-washing, painting, gardening, event planning, updating staff manuals and cleaning offices,” says Katherine Stinnett, the property’s sales and marketing manager. “Our chef is using this time to work on a new seasonal menu offering for the restaurant.”

In the early days of the crisis, tourism officials tried to give hotels, tour operators and museums a helping hand as they weathered the first squalls of the storm. Now, they’ve changed gears.

“We want to dull the pain as much as possible,” Tia Troy, a spokeswoman for Visit Casper in Casper, Wyoming, told me last week. “Right now, it’s not about bringing people to their destination. The focus is on doing what’s possible to ensure that the destination – including its residents and businesses – makes it out of this as well positioned as possible.”

Casper’s inward-facing efforts include launching Cowboy Curbside, an online directory of every dining establishment in the city that is offering delivery or takeout. It also launched a job board to connect workers who have been laid off with companies that are hiring locally.

In Monaco and elsewhere, tourism leaders are moving on to the next phase of the comeback: Outreach efforts to start bringing visitors back to the area. “We need to make sure that no one forgot us,” says Antognelli, the Monaco tourism head.

Persuading large conventions to return is the first order of business. A single conference, which can bring tens of millions of dollars to an area, is a critical step to recovery. And then there are the individual visitors to be enticed with deals and incentives.

Will the virtual tours, social media campaigns and hard work of tourism officials bring you back? We’ll see.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.