KALAMAZOO, Mich. — As states consider when and how to loosen stay-at-home restrictions, some West Michigan business owners look to summer tourism with careful optimism.
Their hope followed a startling hit to the country’s tourism industry, which hemorrhaged as coronavirus disease 2019 infected more than a million people and killed tens of thousands of others.
“In the short term, the situation has not been good for tourism,” Scott Reinert, executive director of South Haven Visitor’s Bureau, said.
Reinert said lodging bookings in South Haven were virtually non-existent for April — down about 95%. He said he imagined May numbers would be similar for the lakeside town whose economy depends on summer tourism.
National numbers were also dismal for the tourism industry. In an analysis completed by Oxford Economics, researchers projected a $519 billion decline in travel spending in the United States, translating into a loss of $1.2 trillion in economic output.
The hardest hit industry was food services, suffering a $128 billion impact. Lodging and air transportation were next in line, losing $112 billion and $97 billion because of the virus.
The analysis said that number was more than nine times greater than the impact 9/11 had on travel sector revenue. In total, the analysis said, the U.S. would see a 45% decline in travel economic impacts for the entire year.
Despite the discouraging numbers and national outlooks, Reinert said he believes West Michigan, and South Haven specifically, will be on the list for summer travelers looking to extinguish their cabin fever.
That would be a saving grace for South Haven, where 75% percent of the town’s tourism revenue comes between June and September, Reinert said.
“All the research that's being completed kind of gauging traveler sentiment says that our area will be attractive to folks,” he said. “They're looking for small town, quaint environments. You know, certainly the beach and resort destinations are expected to have high tourism levels through the summer.”
A survey completed in late April by the U.S. Travel Association echoed those expectations. In it, 59% percent of the people responding said they would be eager to travel for leisure once COVID-19 passed, the majority of them saying they’d be more likely to do so by car and to destinations closer to home.
“That positions us well,” Reinert said. “We’re within a short drive, within two to three hours of many metropolitan areas. Certainly, we think that we’ll be positioned from that standpoint, too.”
Kara Keller, owner and inn keeper of Kara’s Kottages, said she too was confident in a summer tourism turn-around.
She owns a group of vacation rentals close to Kalamazoo’s downtown. She said short-term rental bookings were non-existent as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders went into effect.
“It started with cancellations,” she said. “That basically meant I was empty. I had vacancies, and I had to wrap my mind around what that looked like, and that was a hard pill to swallow.”
In order to cope, Keller rented out her apartments to people needing month-to-month housing, going from innkeeper to landlord in about five days.
The tactic helped keep her business afloat. She said the rentals were nearly full with extended-stayers in late April. As regional and state leaders discussed how to reopen the economy, Keller said her first post-coronavirus vacation bookings started to roll-in.
“Some are in June and July, so I’m happy to see those,” she said. “Right now, I’m letting my current tenants know that they could get a 30-day notice to vacate at any time when I start to feel comfortable.”
Keller has an established clientele. She said about 40% of her customers are repeat guests, boosting her confidence that this coming summer could still be lucrative for her business.
“I know that they very much look forward to spending time in Kalamazoo,” she said. “I’m so confident that as soon as this turns around, things are going to look up.”
Reinert said it’s too soon to know exactly how the tourism industry will be affected on a regional level. Part of the equation, he said, is working with local leaders to make sure engagement efforts are done responsibly.
“Tourism is a key driver to our economy here locally, but we also know opening up carries risk,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can and will do everything we can to make sure that’s appropriately balanced.”