DULUTH – The world went into lockdown last year during spring break season, cutting short or canceling many Minnesotans' plans to get away as COVID-19 began its spread across the country.

"It's wild to think about last year at this time," said Kjersti Vick, marketing manager for Visit Cook County. "We had no idea what was in store for us."

After the initial statewide shutdown, the small northeastern Minnesota county welcomed swarms of tourists over the summer months — its outdoor amenities and easy road trip location made for a pandemic-friendly vacation spot. The North Shore of Lake Superior has remained a popular destination through the winter and into spring for many of the same reasons.

Now some local businesses are saying the vaccine rollout and recent stimulus payments are making people even more willing to travel.

"We're seeing sustained interest in taking vacations," said Aaron Bosanko, marketing director at Odyssey Resorts, which owns Larsmont Cottages, Caribou Highlands and other popular North Shore properties. "For a long time it was a lot of pent-up demand from people stuck at home in their home office. Now it's more of those 65-plus who have had their vaccines."

Other North Shore attractions have seen a consistent uptick in weekday traffic thanks to the flexibility allowed by remote work or school.

"We really couldn't take more demand on Saturdays," said Jim Vick, director of sales and marketing for Lutsen Mountains. "But to have much bigger Tuesdays throughout the season — that's really helped."

Next week is the ski area's busiest week this year, which Vick said has so far yielded above-average earnings. He's hopeful the traffic will ultimately help Lutsen Mountains make up for the loss of last year's spring break season, which ended abruptly due to COVID-19. Some nearby resorts have already sold out for the Easter weekend.

Vick is also monitoring implications for the more distant future. He's seen a large number of skiers visiting Lutsen Mountains for the first time, or perhaps returning after 10 or 15 years away.

"I think there was a trend of folks who at one point decided they would do one ski vacation a year and it would be out west," he said. "That was too big of a travel commitment under the current circumstances.

"The reviews from those people have been really strong," Vick added. "Hopefully, we've done our job this winter to convert them to repeat their trips here."

Lutsen Mountains has enough snow stored away that it plans to remain open through the month of April, even as the temperatures rise. The unusually early spring weather has also allowed some businesses, like Duluth's Bent Paddle Brewing Co., to open outdoor seating more than a month ahead of schedule.

"Throughout the course of the pandemic, we've seen license plates from all over the place," said Pepin Young, the brewery's director of taproom and retail operations.

Perhaps because so many tourists pass through Duluth on their journeys farther north, hotels in the city are still largely vacant, particularly on weekdays when just 25% of rooms have been filled lately. Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth, said the city is missing many of the large conventions it usually hosts this time of year.

"We've seen this slow and gradual improvement in occupancy levels, but we're certainly not at pre-COVID levels yet," Tanski said.

Like many others in the industry, she's most focused on gearing up for the summer, the busiest season for visits to the North Shore.

Businesses said they expect they'll maintain most of the pandemic precautions put in place as tourism traffic increases again. A snowmobiling event at the end of February caused an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Cook County, local radio station WTIP reported, despite the community's efforts to prevent the virus from spreading.

But, as tourism officials often repeat, the North Shore's many outdoor amenities offer plenty of space to social distance. In addition to Alpine skiing at Lutsen, Kjersti Vick said the warm spell has made it prime time for spring waterfall hikes.

Additionally, tourism-dependent businesses are hopeful that as the vaccine rollout continues more visitors will feel comfortable venturing to attractions and restaurants.

"I'm already definitely seeing a lot more seniors coming out," said Louis Hanson, co-owner of Duluth Grill, OMC Smokehouse and Corktown Deli & Brews. "Likewise, the stimulus is definitely pushing a surge in people going out.

"We thrive on that energy from our customers," he added. "It's good to see and hear from people, their excitement coming out. It's like a rebirth."

Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478