While the economy of the nation fell into a recession in March, the nation’s tourism industry fell into a depression. During that month our state’s travel and hospitality industry suffered a 76 percent drop in expenditures. Adult groups, leisure travel and business travel came to a sudden halt. It could have been worse. Forty-eight other states experienced even greater percentage losses.

Alabama’s tourism industry grew by nearly 7 percent last year to expenditures that totaled a record $16.8 billion. At the end of 2019, our economic impact report indicated that an estimated 200,000 people worked in the restaurants and lodgings sectors of the tourism industry. As of last week, approximately 62,000 of those workers had filed for unemployment in the past 9 weeks. The peak of 17,632 filed during the week of April 4. It has fallen for each of the seven succeeding weeks to 2,355 for May 16.

Now that Gov. Kay Ivey has reopened many tourist attractions as the official start of summer arrives, all that can change, although no one believes our industry can recover the three months when the pandemic plunged the nation’s tourism industry in the dark. It will all depend on when the nation’s travelers feel comfortable leaving their homes…and their states. Groups come to Alabama to learn about the history and culture of the Old South and the New South. Our appeal is broad, from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for school children in the northern part of the state to the civil war and civil rights in Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. For the first time last year, one million visitors went to the space museum and Space Camp.

As has been the trend for the past three years, domestic and international groups have come to the heart of the state to learn about the civil rights history that reshaped what it means to be an American. Last year some 500,000 visitors, mostly from out of state, toured the memorial and museum of the Equal Justice Initiative in downtown Montgomery. As Birmingham develops the national monument status of its civil rights district, it will attract even more of the same groups headed to Montgomery.

Our group sales team is hearing from the motor coach industry that the museums and restaurants of Alabama will be more appealing to group tours than those located in large metropolitan areas when the pandemic abates. There is the perception that Alabama towns and cities offer a less hurried pace which will appeal to sequester-fatigued individuals.

Gov. Kay Ivey has gradually reopened the state’s businesses with the precision of a surgeon, one step at a time in order to minimize the spread of the virus. Her announcement reopening theaters, arcades and bowling alleys is a positive step toward entertainment and fun. We appreciate her allowing the mayors of Baldwin County to be responsible for maintaining social distancing on our beautiful beaches. Some coastal towns in Florida have paid the price over the past several weeks of not policing proper spacing which led to risks of more infections.

Now that the Alabama beaches have been open for three weeks and we are headed into a three-day holiday weekend, we will soon see measurements as to how the coast has reinvigorated Alabama as a tourist destination.

This will benefit far more than just the coastal towns. When I worked at the space center in the 1980s, I became a major advocate for the beaches because the coast pulls midwestern visitors through the entire state. That way cities as diverse as Muscle Shoals and Monroeville and Opelika can share the same guests as the beach.

— Lee Sentell is the director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

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