An Unwelcomed Visitor, COVID-19 Impacts Tourism

Amelia Island has gone through tourism-related disasters before, but this year has been a roller-coaster.

— Steve’s Marketplace —

Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.

Over the years, the tourism industry has been blindsided by ferocious hurricanes. Terrorist attacks. Financial crises. Steadfast, Gil Langley has navigated the carnage. 

This time around, things are different for the tourism industry. Ever since the unwelcomed visit of the Covid-19 virus. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and we’ve been through just about everything that can be thrown at you, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” says Langley, the president of the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

Even so, the peak summer season is being salvaged. Nearly all the restaurants/bars and hotels and leisure activities are now open on Amelia Island, at a lesser capacity. And the tourism numbers have not been that bad, all things considered within a pandemic. 

In terms of bed-tax collections, $3.6 million has been collected through June of this year. This is about half of what is normal. The bed tax, assessed on overnight stays here, is substantial for the community. These taxes fuel tourism-marketing efforts under Langley’s leadership, among other uses.

Indeed, this year has been a roller-coaster, but not the kind at amusement parks. After the onset of the virus and the national shutdown in March, tourism plummeted. “April was the worst market anybody’s ever seen,” Langley says. Hotel rooms were at 9 percent occupancy that month, with $9.25 in revenues per available room (compared with $200 normally). 

With the re-opening of the beaches around Memorial Day, Langley initiated a social-media campaign to attract the “drive-in” market. People were most comfortable driving to a vacation destination, rather than flying. The campaign produced some traction. 

By July, about half the hotel rooms here were filling up. The July 4th weekend brought hope, as hotel-rental rates rebounded. This was also different from other downturns. “In tough economic times prior to this one, hotels cut their prices pretty quickly,” Langley says.  

As the tourism industry adjusts, something else unexpected occurred. The void in hotel-room rentals is being filled by overnight stays at vacation homes. Many travelers are more comfortable in an individual house than in a hotel right now, out of concern of the virus. “Their fears and concerns are driving their buying power,” Langley says. 

Looking ahead, our major events of fall 2020 and spring 2021 are uncertain. These could be cancelled due to the virus. So Amelia Island will have to depend on leisure travel.  

“People are getting a little bit of cabin fever and want to go out and take shorter trips,” Langley says. Meanwhile, meetings and conventions at the prominent hotels here have “basically evaporated.” Since most visitors to Amelia Island are older, Langley has again adjusted his focus. He is targeting millennials, who are less fearful of the virus and enjoy outdoor activities. 

As compared with other tourism-related disasters, the lingering uncertainty of the virus is the most troubling. Fortunately, the U.S. economy was extremely healthy prior to the outset, and most consumers still have money to spend as the financial markets have recovered. 

Through it all, Amelia Island remains an attractive destination for travel. Its brand will survive this downturn, as it has others. “We have a very ” Langley says. “When a vaccine becomes readily available, I think we’ll see explosive growth.” 

Steve Nicklas Financial Advisor
Steve Nicklas

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Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor for a major brokerage firm who lives and works on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns appear regularly in several newspapers in North Florida and South Georgia, and on his website: www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has also published a book, “All About Money,” consisting of his favorite columns over the past 20 years. The book is available at local stores and on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected].