Travel returns to normal as pent-up demand continues

Customers wait to check-in at Sarasota–Bradenton International Airport in Sarasota, Florida. | Dennis Lennox

The travel and tourism industry is back.

At least that was the message last week in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at Domestic Showcase, a major regional industry conference sponsored by the Southeast Tourism Society. The last iteration of the conference was held two years ago, just before the coronavirus pandemic brought the industry to its knees.

Flash forward to today and everyone from destinations to tour operators is upbeat that the long-awaited return to normal is finally here. That seems especially true as many pandemic-imposed restrictions and mandates have been dropped as the political winds shift toward normalcy.

Of course, the official return to normalcy can only come with the lifting of the federal mask mandate on airplanes, which is set to expire March 18 unless extended by the Biden administration. Prominent commentator Gary Leff of View from the Wing says several airlines are “ready to see it lifted.”

Many states and destinations are confident that pent-up demand will continue for the foreseeable future. One such state is Tennessee.

While Nashville lost a tremendous amount of business and convention travel, other parts of the state thrived. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park had a record-breaking 14.1 million visits in 2021.

“Tennessee experienced $303 million in lost state revenue between March and December 2020, which represents a $2 billion loss for the industry as a whole,” Mark Ezell, the state’s commissioner of Tourism Development, said. “Tennessee is well-poised to set new records for travel and hospitality revenue in 2022.”

Ezell’s outlook is also held by Sharon Cole of Sharin’ the South Tours, which operates bus tours of Nashville and Memphis.

“People are ready to jump on a bus and be back on the road,” she said. “I have had to hire another staff to work in the office as I’m overwhelmed.”

Many know Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saved his state’s hospitality, travel and tourism industries by famously keeping Florida open for visitors, but few know the Sunshine State wasn’t alone in reaping the benefits of tremendous pent-up demand.

“We are very much where Florida landed on this line,” Karen Gould with the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority said. “We’ve had 17 record occupancy tax months during the course of the pandemic and continue to see things trending this way for the duration.”

Her organization is responsible for tourism along an 85-mile stretch of North Carolina beaches and coastal towns, including postcard-perfect Beaufort.

The record-breaking demand has also transformed the Outer Banks and other previously seasonal destinations into year-round destinations.

“The Outer Banks tourism industry pivoted early during the pandemic to meet new travel behaviors like many places around the country, however, the allure of the barrier islands and three National Park sites and other preserved open spaces only grew,” said Aaron Tuell, public relations manager for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “With the increased opportunities for remote working families to visit year-round and enjoy longer stays, we’re seeing more interest in the less-than-peak visitation months.”

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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