In both timely and ironic fashion, National Travel and Tourism Week begins this Monday, May 3.
What is normally a celebration of the tourism industry and how it benefits society, will obviously have a more somber tone this year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, now, more than ever is the time to honor the impact that tourism has on communities.
With the Stay-at-Home order shrouding most of the country and non-essential travel restrictions, the travel and tourism industry has hit an all-time low. Once the travel ban is lifted, people will begin to travel again. However, there will not be an immediate spike in demand. Visit Durango is currently conducting a traveler sentiment survey to gauge the ways that this crisis will impact how people travel. Of the over 1,000 respondents, 2/3 said it will be at least one month after the Stay-at-Home order is lifted before they feel safe to travel. Once tourism is back on the table, other destination marketing organizations, like Visit Durango, will all be vying for the top spot on vacationers’ lists. Luckily, Durango and La Plata County are better-positioned for recovery than most other locations.
Every study conducted about the post-COVID travel economy predicts that personal vehicles will become far more popular as a means of transportation. Even previous to the pandemic, road trips were predicted to be making a comeback this year. While we typically get a portion of travelers coming into the area via DRO, luckily for Durango, we are already primarily a drive-market. Our proximity to other great road trip destinations, the Million Dollar Highway, and the saturation of scenic byways make us a prime road trip destination. For this reason, Visit Durango’s advertising efforts will be narrowed-in to attract those within a ten-hour or less drive time.
Another positive indicator for Durango tourism’s comeback is our more remote, rural location. Studies indicate that when travelers decide to leave home again, they will be hesitant to visit urban environments and densely-populated areas. Even during peak travel times, Durango is not an over-crowded visitor spot. We are not a bustling city or an amusement-park-like natural attraction. Additionally, one quality that we typically consider a hurdle for travelers, our remoteness, will be a great selling-point during the rebound. In an effort to shy away from cities, travelers will be attracted to places that are far from major metropolises. With our closest major cities being over three hours away, Durango is well-positioned, both figuratively and literally.
While fears around domestic travel are prevalent, international travel will suffer for much longer. As international travel was one of the first restrictions put into place at the beginning of this ordeal, it will also likely be one of the last to be lifted. With borders closed and international flights having drastically dropped, tourism markets that are heavily-reliant on the overseas visitor will be hit hard. International travelers account for a portion of Durango’s tourism market but the large majority are US residents. For La Plata County, international travelers are the cream-on-top but not the core of the industry.
Similarly, our region appeals to the economical and mid-tier traveler. As the economy and consumer finances take a devastating loss, those who do work travel into their budget for the next year will be looking for less-expensive alternatives. What was going to be a summer trip to Western Europe may shift towards a road trip to more affordable spots like Southwest Colorado. With less discretionary income and low gas prices, people will be even more inclined towards road trips. Durango’s tourism products are within reach for the thrifty. This will create appeal and may provide an advantage compared to some of our more luxury-focused competitors, like Aspen or Telluride.
Perhaps the biggest leg up our region has for tourism recovery is our quality of outdoor recreation attractions. In a recent poll of travel-focused businesses, Durangatangs agreed that outdoor recreation is one of our top two attractions for visitors. With year-round outdoor offerings, Durango will have major appeal. When we asked visitors what kinds of activities they will be more likely to participate in this new normal, camping, visiting national parks, and independent outdoor activities, such as hiking, cycling, rock climbing, and stand-up paddleboarding, rose to the top. Durango’s reputation as an outdoor adventure mecca will be an advantage. Visit Durango’s recovery ad campaigns highlight our open spaces, fresh air, and scenic views. Activities that easily allow people to maintain social distancing will have added appeal.
Thirty percent of La Plata County’s economy is fueled by tourism. One in four jobs in Durango is a byproduct of our tourism industry. With this reliance on visitors, how our destination rebounds post-COVID will be reliant on tourism. With all the advantages our destination has over the competition, our recovery will bounce back faster than most. It will be a long road, but by highlighting our unique advantages and being prepared to welcome visitors again, Durango will thrive once again.