John Dersham, president of DeKalb Tourism, gave the Fort Payne City Council an update on the state of the county’s leading industry, which has been significantly impacted statewide due the coronavirus. Actually, Fort Payne has benefitted from tourists’ desire to socially distance while enjoying the great outdoors and escaping population centers where scheduled events have been canceled like tumbling dominoes.
“We got some really, really good news about last year,” Dersham said, “and if I had been talking to you in March, I might have been crying some serious blues because it looked like tourism, as we knew it, was ending. It’s heavily impacted in cities like Huntsville and Birmingham. But here in DeKalb, when Gov. [Kay] Ivey implemented her Stay at Home order and policies, we took on an advertising strategy that would talk about good, clean outdoor fun that’s possible while social distancing, relatively easy to drive around in, with simple, small towns to enjoy.
“People just migrated unbelievably because of COVID,” he said. “We’ve had our best June, July and August in 15 years because people are coming here to rent cabins, stay at campgrounds, tour Little River Canyon. The canyon and DeSoto State Park have the highest visitation they’ve had this year. And Buck’s Pocket just reopened and is doing extremely well.”
Dersham predicted this trend will continue as travelers visit these scenic attractions to see fall colors. Leaves have started to change and this should last well into November.
The heaviest negative impact has been the loss of international visitors to the canyon, he said. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the United States is prohibiting all foreign nationals who have been in countries such as China, Iran, parts of the European Union, the UK, Ireland and Brazil, subject to some exemptions. Quarantine requirements for self-isolation are subject to frequent change as the situation unfolds with nearly 5 million active cases diagnosed and more than 221,000 American deaths.
“This is not the best ever numbers for those months overall. We will still come in under last year’s numbers due to COVID-19 but will be fine in comparison to most tourism locations hurt by the loss of international business and loss of corporate and government travel, which is still not taking place as it was prior to the coronavirus,” Dersham said.
Dersham introduced Tami Reist, the president and CEO of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association. She presented an overview of tourism numbers for the area. Last year, DeKalb County experienced 11% growth in the number of visitors with at least one night’s occupancy in a local lodging venue.
“That’s the most out of the 16 northernmost counties in the state, so congratulations,” Reist said. “I’d also like to highlight that tourists spent just under $100 million dollars last year in DeKalb County. These expenditure numbers are calculated from visitors who spent at least one night in the county paying lodging taxes… You only continue to grow by working together. I also want to congratulate [Dersham] and his great staff for the job they’ve done.”
Reist said she sees the numbers for 2020 from the state tourism department “and you’re not off by that much with COVID going on.”
Being a member of AMLA gives DeKalb Tourism greater buying power for lower ad rates in the places where potential visitors are looking for things to do, Dersham explained. The city appropriations come from the lodging taxes generated through tourism. The interest sparking travel by these out-of-town visitors is achieved by marketing and advertising that helps keep the city’s lodging full or close to full much of the time.
The DeKalb Tourism office has relocated temporarily to 2414 Airport Road West since their previous offices were flooded on Easter Sunday. Staff continues to send out information packets requested by visitors to their website, https://visitlookoutmountain.com/.
During a recent work session, current and future members of the city council expressed a desire to increase promotion of the area through eco-tourism and sports tourism. It was suggested the city highlight links to country music superstars Alabama, the forthcoming new sports complex and the JSU Canyon Center near the entrance of the national preserve.