Summer travel in America: High hopes, false starts

Las Vegas, Nevada, a vacation destination any time of the year. (Photo source: Handout)
Las Vegas, Nevada, a vacation destination any time of the year. (Photo source: Handout)

Camping, biking and hiking are on the rise, as Americans head outdoors and hit the road in search of some semblance of a normal summer-vacation season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But surging infection rates and shifting, inconsistent government policies are putting a damper on ambitious plans to re-open tourist economies.

Hawaii and Puerto Rico: Islands in isolation

Hawaii is yearning for the return of tourists, and in June re-opened its airports to inter-island travel. 

But the small surge of in-state travel that has followed will not support “anywhere near the 216,000 jobs that it did last year,” according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. 

In May, air arrivals to Hawaii numbered just over 9,000 — that’s a 99 percent drop compared to the more than 340,000 arrivals in Hawaii last year, in May 2019.  

Hawaii is scheduled to re-open to tourism on August 1, but whether the island state is ready remains in question. 

Critics say there’s no clear plan for pre-testing incoming tourists for COVID-19, and Honolulu’s Mayor Kirk Caldwell told Hawaii News Now that he’s “concerned” about any new influx of tourists given the surging cases of the disease across the U.S. mainland.  

On July 15, Puerto Rico will also re-open for inbound tourism, but not without new health and safety regimens in place. The National Guard will help conduct health checks on every arrival, administering rapid-response COVID-19 tests; anyone not testing negative faces a 14-day quarantine. 

Fear of flying

Whether those tourists will be flying in at all is another story. 

A survey in June found that just 20 percent of Americans are looking to travel for vacation “without hesitation” anytime soon, which doesn’t bode well for all those tourism-dependent economies. 

Of these, just 37 percent said they were planning to travel by air over the next year. 

But a significantly larger number, 54 percent, plan on taking a road trip just for the pleasure of it.  

Tourism officials in Missouri have taken notice, and plan to make the most of it. 

The St. Louis region has lost at least $1 billion in revenue so far from the tourism shutdown this year. In response, Explore St. Louis, the regional tourism agency, is launching a campaign aimed at people within 200 miles of the region, encouraging “staycations” and local road trips to “re-explore” the area. 

To support the campaign, new digital ads will debut in July and feature tourist families in masks visiting the iconic Gateway Arch, plus local zoos and aquariums. 

In Pennsylvania, tourism brings $700 million per year to Washington County and the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area. A survey commissioned by the regional chamber of commerce found that locals are deeply concerned about COVID-19, but do plan on enjoying outdoor activities such as hikes, going fishing, and visiting a park. 

Notably, 64 percent of survey respondents said that a “safety certification” would persuade them to patronize a business displaying such a certificate. 

False starts

Yet there is no such certification available anywhere in the United States, and states that have pushed ahead with re-opening their economies, often against medical advice, are now experiencing huge surges in pandemic infections. 

Florida, one of the states that took the lead in re-opening, is now the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot, with more than 200,000 cases of the disease in-state as of last Saturday. 

The situation has gotten so bad that the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County has reversed course on re-opening, and has shut down restaurants, bars, strip clubs, theaters, cinemas and gyms. 

The governors of tourism-dependent states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, New York, Nevada, Washington and California have all slowed down or reserved plans to re-open their economies.   

In response to the tourist-economy crisis, the Trump administration has floated a proposal to jump-start to the national tourist economy by giving tax breaks to Americans who travel for leisure between states. 

President Trump also made headlines this week by stating that 99 percent of COVID-19 infections are “harmless,” a claim that has been widely criticized. 

Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, Honolulu Star Advertiser (inter-island quarantine, testing doubts), Travel Agent Central, KDSK, BizJournals.com, The Observer-Reporter, Hawaii News Now, The Hill, Huffington Post

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