With COVID-19 no longer enveloping society like a dark shroud, people have started going out and traveling more.
That, combined with the arrival of the summer months, means we should be looking at the height of local tourism season in Gadsden and surrounding areas. But in the aftermath of COVID, does that remain true, or has the pandemic altered how people view travel and vacations?
Judging by the words of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism Executive Director Hugh Stump, tourism in the area is, if anything, thriving post-coronavirus.
"Local tourism skyrocketed in 2021 after a lackluster 2020 due to COVID-19," Stump said.
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Citing the Alabama Tourism Industry Economic Impact Report of 2021, Stump explained how and why tourism took off last year — pointing out that people were drawn to something that allowed them to escape being confined in their homes as a result of the lockdown.
With much of our local area being rural, it was a perfect marriage.
"In 2020, state lodgings tax collections in Etowah County dropped from 2019 by 16 percent as businesses canceled travel and vacations were put on hold," Stump said. "However, as the pandemic wore on, people began to take to the outdoors, where the sunshine and open spaces were able to help shake off the COVID blues.
"Areas with campgrounds, marinas, resorts and beaches all began to see influxes of travelers," he continued. "Etowah County’s natural resources helped attract visitors searching for outdoor recreational opportunities and that led to an increase in state lodgings taxes collected in 2021 in Etowah County over 2020 by 41 percent; 2021 even surpassed 2019’s collections by over 19 percent."
It didn't take too long after the pandemic set in before the appeal of sunshine, clean air, rivers, trees, plants and all of nature's other wonders began drawing folks into the area.
"Tourism visits to Etowah County plunged in March and April 2020 as the pandemic began to take hold," Stump said. "Most in the tourism industry did not anticipate the surge in outdoor recreation that began to occur in the summer of 2020. Overnight we saw lodgings taxes collections start to rebound and they continued rising through 2021."
The proof of the appeal of Etowah County's outdoors scene isn't just in seeing how many folks you can spot fishing, hiking trails, camping, etc. It's in quantifiable data.
"According to the Alabama Tourism Department’s annual report on tourism, tourists in Etowah County in 2021 spent over $57 million, up 38 percent over 2020 and up 19 percent over 2019," Stump said. "Over 1,500 (people) are employed in the hospitality industry in Etowah County, up in 2021 by 39 percent over 2020."
Stump said he believes locations with plenty of natural resources will continue to thrive, even with the virus not quite the threat it once was.
One area does remain a little shaky, he said, though it appears far from dire.
"Large-scale conferences and conventions are starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, but we have not yet seen the long-term effects of mobile work, telecommuting and videoconferencing as it relates to business travel in person," Stump said.
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Etowah County has a number of specific events and locations that traditionally draw plenty of tourist attention. It's no coincidence that many of them are outdoors-based and continue to attract people from outside the area — and likely will for the foreseeable future.
"The 'World's Longest Yard Sale' continues to be Etowah County’s signature event for visitation. Visitors from across the country descend on Gadsden for four days each August," Stump explained. "Noccalula Falls Park is always a top-five destination in Alabama and is a leader in regional events, even attracting the Kansas City Barbeque Society World Invitational in (November) 2022.
"The Barbarian Challenge continues to grow and attract contestants from a further reach each year," he added. "Neely Henry Lake routinely draws local and regional bass tournaments, but Bassmaster and MLF and FLW held major national tournaments on the lake in 2020 and 2021. That trend should continue moving forward. Tournament bass fishing on Neely Henry Lake is a $10-million-a-year industry, according to a recent study by JSU."
All things told, the tourism industry appears to be in a strong state in Etowah County, now and in the future.
J.J. Hicks is a news reporter at The Gadsden Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Outdoors helping Etowah County prosper in post-pandemic world