Tourists: “We’re sorry. And we want you back.”

Deserted streets and strangely muted cities and other destinations neutered by the coronavirus pandemic have reminded everyone how much visitors contribute to their DNA.

A sight New Yorkers thought they'd never miss — a bustling Times Square — reminds us that it's the people who make this city come alive. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
A sight New Yorkers thought they'd never miss — a bustling Times Square — reminds us that it's the people who make this city come alive. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

As Labor Day approaches it’s sobering to think most of us have been in COVID-19 lockdown for more than five months now, with no obvious end in sight.

What we thought might be a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months working from home has turned into a marathon that has made us reevaluate every aspect of our lives, including work.

In my home city, New York, many people have left town to stay with parents or other family members or, if they are lucky, relocated to second properties or rented a summer retreat to see out the hiatus away from the metropolis.

Some will never return. And attitudes to working from home have changed at both ends of the spectrum, among employers and employees. More flexible arrangements are going to be an inevitable part of the future of work.

On a personal level, I’ve only traveled in from my Brooklyn base to Manhattan three times in five months, all for medical appointments.

Visiting the city is surreal. It’s kind of open but not open. And that sums up many other parts of the country and global locations. The subway system is still quiet, even during rush hour.

One of the biggest differences is that there are no tourists. And boy, do we miss them.

While we loved to incessantly complain about them clogging up the streets and getting in the way pre-coronavirus, now they’re not here you suddenly realize how much they contribute to the buzz, atmosphere and excitement of a city — and, most of all, the economy.

The dollars that tourists bring in contribute to the sustainability and viability of the essential parts of the city experience we’re now missing so much.

There are no Broadway shows, so the tour buses and lines of hopefuls at the TKTS stalls are absent. There are no flights into JFK and LaGuardia from distant parts so the airports are empty. Restaurants are closing in their droves — permanently. And the hotels are suffering badly due to lack of guests and business travelers.

This is clearly terrible news for all brands operating in the hospitality, travel and tourism sectors — and for the agencies that support them and those industries.

According to travel journal Tourism Economics, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in $330 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy from the beginning of March until August 8. In the week ending August 4 alone, travel spending rose 4%, but it was still 46% down — $10.6 billion — on the prior year.

So, as we hopefully move slowly toward a situation where some sort of normal life can resume and locations can gradually reopen, it is vital for leaders in the tourism industry to encourage visitors to return, but in a completely safe manner.

Specialist travel PR firm Fahlgren Mortine recently polled leaders in destination marketing organizations for its Tourism Practice Survey.

Conducted in June with various different sizes and types of organization across the country, the survey analyzed their reopening plans and, crucially, legal liability arrangements.

Almost half of respondents (46%) said media familiarization tours are “extremely important” to their overall PR/marketing strategy. But, despite this, the majority (60%) host fewer than 20 media annually.

At the time of the survey, 44% of respondents had started inviting media back into their markets for the summer. The rest were either waiting until the fall, interested in hosting but unsure of the appropriate timeframe, or just said it was “too soon.”

Fahlgren Mortine found three out of five respondents have started receiving visit requests from media/influencers, whether they’ve loosened the reins on their hosting programs or not.

Their top concerns regarding hosting media tours are: optimizing visitor experiences when attractions and restaurants are closed; the availability of budgets; and legal liability associated with hosting media and influencers during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, more than three out of five respondents said they haven’t changed anything about their hosting evaluation processes since the pandemic struck. Fewer than one in five have increased requirements, implementing measures such as only hosting top-tier media and requiring journalists to have a confirmed assignment.

The, frankly not earth-shattering but still relevant, conclusions the agency draws from the data are that there should be more collaboration with partners on itinerary and health and safety measures; group media tours should be avoided in favor of custom activations; and only media and travel influencers who have driven to the location rather than flying should be hosted. The firm also provided a useful legal waiver template for destinations to use.

Now, clearly, there’s an element of this research that comes under the category of “agency does survey designed to encourage clients to buy more of their PR services.” But it does still provide useful advice for destinations looking to attract those valuable tourism dollars back into their coffers.

And, like many others I’m sure, I for one will have a new appreciation for those visitors when they do finally safely return to New York City and other U.S. destinations far and wide — and only then will the buzz truly return to our streets.

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