Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated August visitation at the Grand Canyon. The story was updated Oct. 8 to say visits to the Grand Canyon were down about 60% in August and 60% for the year.
DENVER — The pandemic hit Colorado’s ski towns first. As spring breakers headed to the slopes, they brought the coronavirus with them. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis shut down the state’s ski resorts in March, triggering a wave of furloughs and layoffs in mountain towns.
Some resorts didn’t reopen to tempt tourists with summer gondola rides and alpine coasters until July. Meanwhile, public health orders forced event organizers to cancel weddings, conferences and marquee events from music festivals to Oktoberfest celebrations.
But despite all the closures and cancellations, summer visitors came anyway.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Ryan Kelsey, director of revenue for Antlers at Vail, a 91-unit condominium, hotel and conference center. The property’s summer revenues were buoyed by U.S. visitors and record condo sales.
Many rural resort towns nationwide where people can hike, bike and relax outdoors experienced better-than-expected visitor numbers this summer, and some also are experiencing a real estate boom as visitors snap up second homes or decide to move there permanently.
“Whether they’re Colorado visitors or out-of-state visitors, particularly from a drive-market standpoint, people are incredibly hungry to get outdoors,” said Vail Town Manager Scott Robson, “and to be in the mountains where it’s beautiful, it’s cooler than wherever people are coming from.”
People who live and work in Colorado’s mountain towns are relieved they didn’t experience a new surge in COVID-19 cases this summer along with the visitors, perhaps thanks to state and local public health orders such as mask-wearing requirements and safety measures including the expansion of outdoor dining.
But towns that benefited from full restaurant patios and busy shops this summer still face economic challenges. The summer season wasn’t as good for businesses, or for sales tax collections, as the summer of 2019.
Spring shutdowns left business owners and local governments with big budget holes to fill, and while mountain towns are hoping to welcome more visitors during fall leaf-peeping season, what will happen during the cold winter months remains an open question.
Vail, for example, expects to end 2020 with sales tax collections down 30% and lodging taxes (a component of sales taxes) down 50%, Robson said.
Tourist spending across rural Colorado appears to have shifted this year, said Colorado Tourism Office Director Cathy Ritter in an email to Stateline. The share of travelers booking campsites and short-term rentals has increased, while the share booking hotel rooms has declined, she said.
Her office also is hearing that more visits to public lands don’t necessarily translate into more spending on local attractions. “Visitors do not seem to be stopping to spend [money] in nearby communities,” she said.
Urban and rural counties with recreation-focused economies had higher unemployment rates in June than places that relied on other sectors, such as manufacturing or government jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But rural recreation counties are better off than their urban counterparts. Such counties had a 10% unemployment rate in June, according to the agency, three percentage points lower than urban recreation counties.
It’s hard to put an overall number on travel to rural areas this summer. Places that already are vacation hotspots are likely experiencing most of the tourist traffic and real estate interest, experts say.
“People are most likely to go — to move to a place, or even visit places, that have at least some familiarity to them,” said Keith Mueller, a professor at the University of Iowa and director of the Rural Policy Research Institute based there.
He said most so-called COVID-19 refugees probably aren’t moving far from their home cities, or from major highways. “Does it work in Western Nebraska? I doubt it.”
In Arizona, skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in June and July didn’t stop people from the Phoenix metro area — or from nearby states — from seeking out the cooler mountains and forests around Flagstaff.
“When you’ve got 115-degree weather down in the valley, and we’re only two hours away and we’re 10 degrees, 20 degrees cooler — they’re coming either way,” said Trace Ward, director of Discover Flagstaff, a city agency. August hotel bookings in the city were down about 10%, he said.
One indicator of outdoor recreation activity, National Park Service visitation numbers, are all over the map, said Megan Lawson, who studies rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana.
“Several of them actually had higher visitation in August than they did in the previous year,” Lawson said, “which I think is doubly remarkable because they’ve eliminated most of their international visitors.”
The number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park — which straddles Wyoming, Idaho and Montana — was up 6% in August compared with August 2019, for instance, and down just 16% for all of 2020.
Visits to the Grand Canyon, however, were down 60% in August and about 60% for the year. Ward of Discover Flagstaff said that a drop in international tourists may be to blame.
Park closures and restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 also may have played a role in reducing visitation at some parks, including the Grand Canyon.
For towns around Yellowstone, it’s been a busy summer. “We’re getting a lot of RV rental people, and people who decided to drive here from the Midwest and Western cities,” said Matt Hall, the mayor of Cody, Wyoming, a town 50 miles from the park’s east entrance.
Hall said town sales tax collections likely will decline 17% this year, which — while troubling — isn’t the plunge local leaders initially expected. “It’s certainly not as bad as everyone was kind of anticipating,” he said.
And people from retirees to affluent young professionals are snapping up homes in the area. “Overall, the real estate market has been insane,” Hall said. “The houses for sale in town are almost nonexistent.”
As economic activity has picked up, some business owners in resort areas complain that it’s become hard to fill jobs.
“We’re hearing pretty consistently [from employers] that the efforts to fill positions — they’ve been very frustrated,” said Gary Wentz, executive director of the Pocono Counties Workforce Investment Area in Pennsylvania. “They’re not getting much response.”
The four Pennsylvania counties Wentz oversees, which are popular mountain getaways for people living in Philadelphia and other mid-Atlantic cities, had August unemployment rates that ranged from 9.3% to 12.8%. He said hiring difficulties appear to be widespread, affecting manufacturers as well as resort businesses.
Wentz said the additional $600 in weekly unemployment aid approved by Congress this spring could have discouraged some people from looking for work. Since that benefit expired in July, he’s heard more about other barriers, such as parents struggling to balance work and school schedules.
While a ban on some types of work-based visas for seasonal foreign workers has reportedly hampered hiring for amusement parks and resort employers this summer, reliance on such visas isn’t common in the Poconos, Wentz said.
Winter will bring uncertainty. Vail is almost guaranteed to welcome fewer people, as Vail Resorts is limiting daily ski lift tickets to avoid overcrowding. “There just won’t be quite as many warm bodies at the ski area on a daily basis as we’re used to,” Robson said.
The town council is considering helping restaurants pay for tents and heat lamps to extend outdoor dining for as long as possible, Robson said. Town leaders have already set aside $1 million for a commercial rent relief program that will run through December.
The Board of Directors for Antlers at Vail has adopted a budget with three revenue levels in order to be prepared for any scenario, Assistant General Manager Kim Rediker said.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to run a full operation,” she said. “But we know that everything could change in a week, depending on how COVID goes in the state of Colorado.”