It’s uncertain how the global coronavirus pandemic will disrupt life in the foreseeable future, but after four months, it’s at least possible to quantify how dire the situation has become.
“(The economic impact) is almost 10 times worse than 9/11,” said Ralf Garritson, a tourism industry researcher. “That time, it took 18 months to return to normal.”
As far as tourism-based economies go, Durango and Southwest Colorado are relatively fortunate, experts say. The wide-open spaces, affordability and outdoor recreation are all attractive features to those still traveling. But as the virus surges again in neighboring states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, tourism and hospitality officials are considering scaling back their outreach and planning for a difficult second half of 2020.
“Definitely, we will see less visitors for the rest of the year, and honestly, that’s probably healthy,” said Rachel Brown, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. “The health of our locals, our community and our visitors is going to be the top priority, of course, for the rest of this year.”
The hospitality industry is incurring deep, structural damage during the pandemic. Tourism industry revenue in April, when shutdowns hit businesses the hardest, cratered 86% compared with the previous year. The industry is expected to take a cumulative $651 billion hit to GDP in 2020, causing 8 million job losses, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.
Still, Tori Emerson Barnes, a senior executive at the U.S. Travel Association, said there is some capacity to start rebuilding this year with the proper policies in place.
“We know that a third of folks right away, as soon as they’re told, ‘All right, you can go,’ they’re going,” Barnes said. “I think it’s a new normal that we have to get used to.”
One point of contention that industry insiders worry about is the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular portion of the CARES Act meant to provide loans to businesses that are struggling to keep up with their payroll. A clause of that program as it was enacted in April prevents certain nonprofits, including the destination marketing organizations promoting different regions to travelers, from receiving loans. Some have had to cut their budgets by 80% as their funding dried up.
“PPP has been good for some of our travel businesses, but by and large, the structure hasn’t worked that well,” Barnes said. “Destination marketing organizations have been largely left out of that as a result of their nonprofit status. We would need to increase that eligibility.”
Brown said the situation in Durango is not quite as dire. The city and La Plata County have both agreed to continue funding the tourism office at 85% of what it would get in normal times, shielding the organization somewhat from the difficult headwinds the industry faces.
Yet the coronavirus continually presents new challenges. Brown’s organization relies heavily on online advertising to reach potential visitors, and she has worked with her team to develop strategies that promote healthy, socially distant activities to entice visitors. But the pandemic has become so bad that she isn’t comfortable advertising at all.
“We actually saw that the majority of our feeder markets right now are hot spots or maybe don’t have as restrictive regulations as we do,” Brown said. “I asked our marketing manager can you please take a look at cases in the metro areas that we were targeting, and he came back and said, ‘Well actually, pretty much all the areas we’re targeting look like they could be going in a not-positive direction.’ So that’s when we decided to pause our ads.”
When advertising does resume, Brown says, it will be to counties with lower case counts and in more areas within Colorado. Until then, Durango will have to get by as the ideal destination for these socially distant times.
“Durango is ideal,” Garritson said. “These are ideal places because in the mind of the consumer, whether true or not, it feels and sounds like a cool safe place to be outdoors.”
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.