DULUTH – Local tourist attractions are gearing up for the governor’s go-ahead to start welcoming visitors in health-concious ways, preparations fueled by hopes that they may have the summer to salvage some of the damage the COVID-19 pandemic has reaped on the hospitality industry.
Though Gov. Tim Walz announced a two-week extension of the state’s stay-at-home order Thursday, Duluth tourism leaders are ready to capitalize on the wave of stir-crazy Minnesotans that may be looking for vacations close to home in the coming months.
Visit Duluth, the city’s tourism nonprofit, plans to use taglines like “Lake Superior: Big enough for everyone” and “it’s time to make new memories.” With the anticipation that health concerns will linger and some families will be forced to tighten their finances, the marketing campaign — right now slated to launch in mid-May — aims to present the city as an easy getaway option for those looking for fun and fresh air.
“When people start moving around again, they are going to come to Duluth,” Mayor Emily Larson said at a news conference Thursday. “They have to see the lake, they have to see these trails. That is our pull. That is what keeps people coming.”
Even with the new push, city officials are predicting Duluth could lose up to 75% of the $12 million it budgeted for this year’s tourism tax revenue, which is collected from a levy on hotels and restaurants and funneled back into organizations and events that attract visitors.
For decades, Duluth has worked to transform itself into a destination for vacationers across the region, through efforts like the revitalization of Canal Park and the building of the Lakewalk.
In St. Louis County, more than 18,000 residents applied for unemployment insurance in the last month, a quarter of which work in the food, drink and hospitality sectors.
“Our industry is hurting deeply,” said Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth.
Hotel occupancy rates have been averaging about 20%. The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) won’t see $2.5 million due to events canceled from March through August. Grandma’s Marathon, which usually brings thousands of visitors and $10 million of economic activity to Duluth each June, was called off.
While year-round residents of vacation spots rushed to discourage visitors at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak — particularly those in less populated areas with more limited hospital resources — they’re now starting to confront the challenge of having to draw people back despite looming uncertainty about the threat the coronavirus will continue to pose. Summer is Duluth’s busiest season, and traffic this year could give a much-needed boost to businesses.
“We need to gently remind people that it’s OK to start planning and that it is safe to start planning,” Tanski said. “Because we will be able to welcome visitors in the not-too-distant future.”
Reopening plans include measures that promote public health. Vista Fleet, which offers cruises on Lake Superior, is planning to reduce the capacities of its boat tours. The Lake Superior Zoo is developing new visitor policies that will keep humans and animals socially distant from one another.
They also factor in expected financial troubles. Spirit Mountain Executive Director Brandy Ream said if its adventure park opens at all this summer, it will likely only be operating three days a week.
Tanski encouraged Duluthians to ask their federal representatives to expand eligibiity for more stimulus funding to associations like Visit Duluth, which can currently only apply for one coronavirus loan program. Larson said she was speaking with state legislators Thursday about bonding requests related to tourist attractions like the DECC and Spirit Mountain.
“We are looking under all rocks,” Larson said, “to see if we can adjust our payments so that we could keep as much money circulating with the local economy as possible.”