Upstate tourism poised for rebound, experts say
ALBANY — After the upstate region’s hospitality industry was hit hard in 2020 by pandemic restrictions, experts who track tourism say 2021 is shaping up as a far more robust year for those whose fortunes are tied to the industry.
A variety of indicators — from early hotel bookings to the arrival of day trippers in parks and restaurants — is fueling optimism in destination places such as Niagara Falls, North Country resort communities and Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, the Glimmerglass Opera and several museums.
The number of people boarding airplanes this year remains far below passenger levels in 2019 though in recent weeks air travel has gained steam, with tens of millions of Americans having been vaccinated for COVID-19.
Within driving distance
But the sluggishness for the airline industry is not necessarily bad news for upstate regions that are within driving distance of metropolitan regions downstate, in New England or Cleveland, Philadelphia or Detroit.
“We have seen a resurgence in travel to the Adirondacks, with travelers coming here from throughout the Northeast,” said James McKenna, chief executive officer of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid. “There has been a lot of what we call rubber tire travel, and it’s almost back to the point where it was in the 1960s.”
The Lake Champlain communities of Plattsburgh and Essex County, as well as the Niagara region at the western edge of New York, have had to weather a loss of Canadian tourists due to the ongoing pandemic-driven closure of the U.S./Canada border. No date has been set for the reopening of the border, which has been closed to all “non-essential” travel since March 21, 2020.
Close to home
Still, said John Percy, president of Destination Niagara USA, the marketing organization for the region: “Every day is looking more and more optimistic, and we are finally seeing light at the end of this very long tunnel.”
Percy said there is a sense of pent-up demand for travel, though many people will want to stick close to home rather than fly to destinations abroad given the ongoing concerns and restrictions linked to the public health emergency.
“This is a great opportunity for us to capture that domestic market more this year and get people to check Niagara Falls off their bucket list,” he said.
Hotel bookings are running about six times higher than where they stood a year ago, when much of the economy in New York and other states was shut down, he noted. The current projections call for Niagara region tourism to get to about 60% of the business it had in 2019, the year before the global outbreak of coronavirus had an abrupt chilling impact on travel.
For the upstate economy, the ripple effects from the spending of tourism dollars are widespread.
In 2019, a record-high 265 million travelers came to New York, spending $73.6 billion during their stays. Their visits generated an economic impact of $117.6 billion, according to Empire State Development, a state authority.
Tourism-related businesses in the Cooperstown area were hit hard last year when popular youth baseball camps were forced to stay closed for the season. The camps bring thousands of families to the rural region, with parents visiting shops and restaurants while their children are put up with their teammates at the camps for week-long stays.
The camps and other attractions have helped spawn a rental housing market benefiting from the demand for short stays, an important source of extra income for many local residents.
David Bliss, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said the business community is optimistic the baseball camps will get the state’s green light for a partial reopening this summer.
“I don’t think we are going to be back to where we were, but it looks like we will be light years ahead of last year,” Bliss said.
Optimism is also fueled by indications that the the colleges in the Oneonta area will return to in-person classrooms this fall with the expectation most people will have received COVID-19 vaccinations by then, he said.
In Plattsburgh, Kristy Kennedy, vice president of marketing for the North Country Chamber of Commerce, said the North Country tourism will get a significant boost when the Canadian border opens. But even if it does not, Kennedy said, “We think we will definitely have a decent summer season.”
Marketing messages, she said, have been updated to promote the region as one that is easily accessible by motor vehicle.
As the state travel restrictions evolve, and with the Cuomo administration promoting a so-called Excelsior Pass to facilitate travel for vaccinated persons, Kennedy said the chamber has been providing detailed explanations to member businesses.
“Anything the state puts out we are making our partners aware of and informing them of how it could or could not help them,” Kennedy said.
Airline travel has been gaining steam in recent weeks, with data from the Transportation Security Administration suggesting the trend is more pronounced at smaller regional airports.
Doug Myers, spokesman for Albany International Airport, said 2,705 passengers came through the terminal Thursday, a big jump from the 269 passengers counted on the same day one earlier. But Thursday’s number was still far shy of the 5,156 for that date in 2019.
“We are pleased to see the increase, but as an airport authority we are not encouraging people to fly,” Myers said. “We want to see the pandemic brought totally under control.”
The airport recently began selling COVID-19 test kits to travelers at $65 each. The airport has also begun a collaborative effort with General Electric to study the pathways of people going through its terminal with the goal of preventing the spread of viruses through social distancing and other measures.