With COVID-19 no longer shrouding society like a dark shroud, people have started to go out and travel more.
This combined with the arrival of the summer months means we should focus on the peak of the local tourism season in Gadsden and the surrounding area. But will that remain the case post-COVID, or has the pandemic changed how people view travel and vacations?
According to Greater Gadsden Area Director of Tourism Hugh Stump, post-coronavirus tourism is rather thriving in the region.
“Local tourism has skyrocketed in 2021 after a lackluster 2020 due to COVID-19,” Stump said.
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Citing the 2021 Alabama Tourism Industry Economic Impact Report, Stump explained how and why tourism has picked up steam over the past year – and pointed out that people were drawn to something that allowed them to break free from the confinement in their Escaping homes as a result of the lockdown.
Since much of our area is rural, it was a perfect marriage.
“In 2020, Etowah County state lodging tax collections fell 16 percent from 2019 as companies canceled trips and put vacations on hold,” Stump said. “However, as the pandemic continued, people started getting outdoors where the sunshine and open spaces could help shake off the COVID blues.
“Areas with campgrounds, marinas, resorts and beaches were all beginning to see an influx of travelers,” he continued. “Etowah County’s natural resources have helped attract visitors seeking outdoor recreation, and this has resulted in an increase in state lodging taxes, which were raised 41 percent in Etowah County in 2021 from 2020; In 2021, the surveys from 2019 even exceeded them by over 19 percent.”
After the outbreak of the pandemic, it wasn’t long before the lure of sunshine, clean air, rivers, trees, plants and all the other wonders of nature began to draw people to the area.
“Tourism visits to Etowah County declined in March and April 2020 as the pandemic took hold,” Stump said. “Most in the tourism industry did not anticipate the surge in outdoor recreation that began in the summer of 2020. Overnight we saw lodging tax collections recover and continue to rise into 2021.”
The proof of the appeal of Etowah County’s outdoor scene isn’t just in seeing the crowds of people you can spot fishing, hiking, camping, and more. It is quantifiable data.
“According to the Alabama Department of Tourism’s annual report, tourists in Etowah County spent over $57 million in 2021, a 38 percent increase from 2020 and a 19 percent increase from 2019,” Stump said. “Over 1,500 (people) are employed in hospitality in Etowah County, a 39 percent increase in 2021 from 2020.”
Stump said he believes locations rich in natural resources will continue to thrive even if the virus isn’t quite the threat it once was.
One area remains a little shaky, he said, although it doesn’t appear all that bad.
“Large conferences and conventions are beginning to return to pre-pandemic levels, but we have yet to see the long-term impact of remote working, telecommuting and video conferencing on in-person business travel,” Stump said.
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Etowah County has a number of special events and locations that traditionally draw a lot of tourist attention. It’s no coincidence that many of these are outdoorsy and continue to attract people from outside the area – and likely will for the foreseeable future.
“The ‘World’s Longest Yard Sale’ continues to be Etowah County’s showcase for visitors. Visitors from all over the country flock to Gadsden for four days every August,” explained Stump. “Consistently one of the top 5 travel destinations in Alabama, Noccalula Falls Park is a leader in regional events, even attracting the Kansas City Barbeque Society World Invitational in (November) 2022.
“The Barbarian Challenge continues to grow, attracting participants from a wider range each year,” he added. “Neely Henry Lake regularly hosts local and regional bass tournaments, but Bassmaster and MLF and FLW hosted major national tournaments on the lake in 2020 and 2021. This trend should continue. per year, according to a recent study by JSU.”
All in all, the tourism industry in Etowah County appears to be in strong shape now and in the future.
JJ Hicks is a news reporter at The Gadsden Times. He can be reached at [email protected]