DULUTH – After a muted kickoff to the region’s tourism season over Memorial Day, the July 4th weekend will likely see the strongest surge of summer visitors yet.
Northern Minnesota is one of the top trending Airbnb destinations nationwide going into the holiday weekend, with searches up nearly 25% over last year and available bookings quickly approaching zero.
Area hotels are also starting to fill up as travel continues to rebound, with a season-high 70% capacity reported in Duluth over what would have been Grandma’s Marathon weekend in June.
“We are definitely seeing signs of recovery,” said Anna Tanski, CEO of Visit Duluth. “Being known as an outdoor destination makes it easy to capitalize on natural opportunities for distancing.”
Airbnb said cabins and rural areas have been top picks for folks itching for the normality of a summer vacation amid a pandemic, and Tanski agreed that people are “looking for more of the independent and isolated lodging options rather than some of the more traditional options.”
Lutsen-based Cascade Vacation Rentals booked its last available North Shore cabin out of 175 properties on Tuesday. Marketing manager Jaye White said travelers have been patient with pandemic restrictions — such as a new bring-your-own linens policy.
“I think people are preparing more and coming with more knowledge — it’s really nice,” White said. “They’re not surprised by certain things, like not having a Walmart.”
Those booking weekend getaways are likely relying more on an outbreak map than a typical atlas.
COVID-19 cases are not only fewer but far less prevalent among northern counties — some of the lowest per capita rates of infection are in the northern third of the state.
Lake of the Woods County had yet to record a single confirmed case as of Tuesday, while Cook County, home to Grand Marais and Lutsen, had just one case confirmed more than two weeks ago.
Fears that travelers would bring the disease to the northeast corner of the state prompted someone to cut down a tree to block Hwy. 61 near the Cook County line, the sheriff said in June.
Concerns over visitors importing the virus are not without merit, the Cook County Chamber of Commerce says, but any further delay in getting tourism back on track would be devastating. Already the county has missed out on millions while travel was restricted and businesses were shut.
“If we continue to be closed in July and August, the losses would be over $1 million per day,” the chamber wrote last month. “We have an economic need to prevent widespread personal and business bankruptcies.”
Around Grand Rapids, the lakes have been busy so far this summer and are expected to be even more packed this weekend. Kelly Chandler, Itasca County’s public health division manager, said she hasn’t received any complaints or safety concerns over how resorts and hotels have adapted to the pandemic.
“That’s something we’re keeping an eye on,” she said.
Visitors are urged to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines — such as wearing masks indoors and when distancing isn’t possible outdoors as part of a #MaskUpItasca campaign.
Not everyone is excited about a rush of visitors while the pandemic continues to rage, said Tamara Lowney, CEO of Itasca Economic Development Corp., but with thousands of residents laid off from hospitality jobs there is a balance to strive for.
“On the whole we want people to come back to our communities and to be safe,” she said. “Hospitality is a major part of our economy up here, one of the three T’s — timber, tourism and taconite.”