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Rebounding, but not recovered: Rowan County tourism begins challenging path toward normalcy

SALISBURY — With COVID-19 restrictions easing, more people continuing to be vaccinated and several major events scheduled for the remainder of the year, James Meacham said Rowan County’s tourism industry is starting to rebound.

While the industry is on the right path, the Rowan County Tourism director said it’s still “nowhere near recovered.” In this case, recovered would mean something close to the tourism industry’s record-breaking 2019, when the state posted better-than-ever tourism revenues.

The stark contrast between the state’s impressive 2019 and pandemic-stricken 2020 was illustrated in the annual tourism spending report released last week by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The report shows domestic travelers spent $19.7 billion in the state in 2020, which was down 29.5% from 2019 when domestic travelers spent a record $27.9 billion. International travelers spent just $268 million in 2020, down a whopping 79.4% from 2019. 

The $3 billion in federal, state and local taxes generated by travelers in 2020 was down 26.6% from the previous year. State tax receipts as a result of domestic visitor spending dropped 26.4% in 2020 and local tax receipts fell 21% to $906.4 million. 

With fewer travelers visiting and spending money in the state, many tourism-dependent businesses cut back on their seasonal and full-time staff. In 2020, direct tourism employment in North Carolina dropped 26.4% to 178,700 and direct tourism payroll dropped 24.5% to $6.4 billion.

The numbers released by the state showed the toll the pandemic took on North Carolina’s tourism industry, but the impact it had on Rowan County, specifically, won’t fully be known until the county-by-county report is released later this year.

Meacham said he expects Rowan County’s 2020 numbers to be down from a record-high $174 million in tourism revenue in 2019. Meacham said he’s more optimistic about what the 2021 numbers will be as restaurants, hotels and cultural centers have begun to welcome back more guests.

As local tourism begins to pick up again, businesses will face several challenges when working back to normal. Local hotels, for instance, will continue to work out of a financial hole brought on by the pandemic.

“At this time last year, properties on average were down 50-60% (in revenue) and now you’re looking at 15-20%,” Meacham said. “That’s still significant losses. If you go from down 60% to down 20%, yes you went up 40%, but you’re down 20%. That’s a lot of what we’re seeing.”

From the start of the pandemic through the end of March, Meacham said, the hotel sector alone has lost $6.3 million in revenue and is on pace to lose a little over $7 million by June 30.

Cultural institutions are trying to return from major revenue losses as well.

“Looking at our major institutions like the Piedmont Players, Salisbury Symphony, Waterworks, Lee Street theatre, Historic Salisbury Foundation, in programming revenue have lost well over $1 million through this current time period,” Meacham said.

Like many industries across the country, Meacham said hotels, restaurants and cultural institutions are also facing difficulties in hiring back employees.

“We do have a labor shortage in some of the businesses that are seeking to recover, whether you’re the transportation museum and you’re down staff or a hotel trying to get workers to come back,” Meacham said.

Kelly Alexander, director of the N.C. Transportation Museum, said the facility is currently down four full-time staff positions. While the museum has been busy enough recently to justify hiring back those positions, Alexander said museum officials are waiting to see if a steady revenue stream will continue.

“You want to be able to have all the people in place, but you don’t want to then put yourself in the situation where if something were to happen and there was a setback you would have to roll back again,” Alexander said.

Meacham said he’s noticed some chain restaurants offering incentives to win back workers while hotels have begun to increase their recruiting efforts by hosting targeted hiring events.

Local hotels and restaurants will continue to shore up their staff as some of the county’s busiest tourism months are approaching. 

The Cheerwine Festival, pushed back from its original May 15 date, will be held downtown on Sept. 18. The festival, Meacham said, provides brand recognition for the city and will likely result in over $1 million in visitor and consumer spending.

The ever-popular Day Out With Thomas event at the N.C. Transportation Museum is scheduled to return this year for the weekends of Sept. 24-26 and Oct. 1-3. Between Day Out With Thomas and the museum’s Polar Express train ride, which will be held from mid-November to mid-December, the county sees an $8 million bump in tourism-related spending. 

Meacham mentioned Autumn Jubilee, which was canceled last year, and October Tour, which went virtual last year, as events in the fall that could bring additional tourism spending back to the county. 

The goal for all tourism-dependent businesses and nonprofits, Alexander said, is a return to 2019.

“We’re trying to make the best experiences that we can for people and making them feel comfortable in visiting,” Alexander said. “Anything related to tourism, we’re all facing the same thing. We all want to get back to 2019.”

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