In January, when North Dakota's tourism department revealed its tag line for 2020, the coronavirus had barely registered in the U.S. But by summer, the slogan--"Follow your curiosity, not the crowds"--had proved prescient. The avoid-the-crowd trip now has a name, too: the "safe-cation."
Summer travel in the U.S. will fall at least 15 percent compared with last year, with air travel down 74 percent, according to a June report from AAA and IHS Markit. The great American road trip, however, is back in a big way, and businesses in certain domestic tourism hubs are bound for a boost--that is, if they can master the social distancing and cleanliness protocols that have become the hallmark of a "safe-cation."
While socially distant camping, hiking, biking, and family-friendly outdoor excursions are experiencing ballooning popularity--and RV rentals have skyrocketed too--places like the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the Dakotas are also selling travelers on a "safe-cation": a trip spent mostly in wide-open spaces, with beefed-up cleaning and distancing practices wherever you must encounter other people.
"We're optimistic that as [the environment] becomes less restrictive and as safety protocols are all improved, that we will see a really strong growth curve," says Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota's director of tourism and marketing. She adds that Covid-19 has already made the season more generally subdued. North Dakota has lost $650 million in visitor spending as of July 4, says Otte Coleman.
Even so, with Covid-19 cases soaring in the South and West, businesses are still poised to benefit from Americans increasingly making tracks up north. Jackson, Wyoming, a gateway to Yellowstone and other national parks and wilderness areas, has seen tourists return faster than expected, according to data commissioned by its tourism board. Indeed, visitation is climbing at mountain and rural vacation spots, even approaching normal, says Mary Kate Buckley, president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a ski resort outside Jackson. "It feels very much like another summer," she says.
Airbnb reported increased interest in Fourth of July bookings in New York's Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions, and the Berkshires. North Carolina's Outer Banks, separated from the mainland, is also benefiting.
Even in places that are open, though, visitors will find certain attractions are closed or limited. That's not such a big deal, says Betsy Andrus, the executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, which has received more calls than usual from potential summer visitors. The region is a few hours' drive from New York and Boston and includes historic towns like Great Barrington and Lenox, home of the popular Tanglewood music venue, which canceled its summer season. Restaurants and shops are open--with social-distancing requirements--but Andrus says people are happy to just book a rental house, get groceries delivered, and spend time outdoors.
Seeing the trend lines, tourism bureaus are adjusting their marketing plans, hoping to see greater returns in their own backyards. "I think most everybody has shifted their strategies," Otte Coleman says. Her department delayed its marketing campaigns and initially targeted North Dakotans before expanding to nearby states.
The Adirondacks region of New York, which includes popular resorts like Lake George, also stepped up its efforts before the Fourth of July, says Michael Bittel, president and CEO of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce. The goal was to persuade people in the New York City metro area to replace their out-of-state beach vacations with an upstate mountain getaway.
"People have been cooped up for three months, and they don't want to go somewhere else to potentially run into the coronavirus again or bring it back," Bittel says. "They know that we've worked hard to stay healthy up here." The Adirondack Chamber, along with the Lake George Regional Chamber and the Warren County Tourism Department, has experienced about 50 percent more calls from potential visitors compared with this time last year, he says.
Buckley, in Jackson Hole, says her resort's summer visitors almost always come by car anyway, but notes that the cars parked at her properties and at nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks mostly have California, Utah, Colorado, and Texas license plates, though nearly every state is represented. "The guests are coming, for sure," she says. "The town's alive."