Rebound and recovery: Tampa Bay Area tourism shows resiliency in face of COVID-19

As autumn approaches on the 2020 calendar, many in the Tampa Bay Area are leaving behind a summer that played out in ways that were anything but ordinary. Nowhere is that more true than in the state's leading industry and economic driver: Tourism.

In a typical year, the Tampa Bay Area serves as the summertime destination for millions of visitors from throughout the United States and around the world. According to Visit Tampa Bay, tourism provided $6.9 billion in revenue to Hillsborough County in 2019 alone. 

Last year, more than 24.5 million tourists visited west-central Florida. The tourism and hospitality industry accounts for some 54,000 jobs providing $2.5 billion in wages.

In other words, it can’t be overstated how important tourism is to the Tampa Bay Area’s economy along with that of Florida's.
 
When COVID-19 emerged in March, the whole world changed so-to-speak, including Florida tourism.

The local food and beverage sector initially took perhaps the biggest hit but has been making a gradual comeback of late with restaurants increasing takeout, limiting seating capacity inside, and setting up outdoor table service.

Theme parks, museums, professional sports, and other recreational venues initially closed or severely restricted public access in March, April, and May to help slow the spread of the virus and flatten increases of new cases.
  
Since June many have begun to reopen their doors to guests on a limited basis and with the implementation of new protocols, including mandatory face coverings, social distancing, and hand sanitizing. While there has been a second spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the Tampa Bay Area, those news cases largely trace back to irresponsible social gatherings and individuals who refuse to wear a mask or engage in social distancing.
 
Meanwhile, local tourist attractions and organizations have managed to welcome locals and visitors back with careful fine-tuning of their pandemic protocols as health experts at the local, state, and federal levels learn more about the unfolding virus situation. While vaccine trials are underway and everyone hopes the pandemic can be curtailed in the coming months, Tampa Bay has meticulously unfurled the welcome mat. And, as three local tourism officials will say, there are many reasons to be optimistic that, with a due balance of caution, Tampa Bay is successfully reopening. 

On a wing and a mask
 
After the pandemic hit the United States hard in March, air travel plummeted 97% to passenger volume levels not seen since 1954. In the months since then, travelers have begun taking to the friendly skies again and passenger volume has subsequently increased at Tampa International Airport, which in April began a COVID-19 safety initiative called “TPA Ready.”

This new program includes plastic shields at ticketing and other service counters, mandated mask wearing for public-facing airport employees, social distancing signage and decals throughout the airside, and landside terminals, and other protocol.

“In addition to this, we’ve stepped up our cleaning procedures and frequency, using new equipment such as electrostatic sprayers and handrail cleaning machines,” says Tampa International Airport Senior Manager of Communications Emily Nipps. “We require passengers to wear masks when moving through the airport, unless they are eating or drinking, and we give free masks to those who forget them.”
 
Nipps says that, according to feedback from passengers and other airport visitors, the new protocols are going over well.

“The bigger issue is how safe people feel traveling in general, particularly for visitors coming to Florida, where we’ve seen a sustained spike in positive COVID-19 cases. Also, the rules seem to vary by airline, which also affects how people feel traveling. But at TPA itself, we’re doing all we can to apply best practices for avoiding the spread of germs, and we think our employees and passengers can see that.”
 
The present goal at the airport, Nipps explains, isn’t necessarily to increase passenger traffic during the pandemic given the health risks associated with thicker crowds, but rather to serve those who do come through the airport and ensure their safety.

“For now, our posture is, ‘We’re ready for you when you feel it’s safe to travel again.’”

She adds, “We will also support our airlines, as we always do, and help spread the word when they begin to add back service that was halted due to COVID.”
 
Nipps says that even during the pandemic, many outdoor venues in the Tampa Bay Area are ready for those who want to safely enjoy some downtime.

“What we do have going for us is that we’re in the Tampa Bay Area, which is a top destination for both leisure and business travelers, and many feel safer in a destination that has outdoor activities such as our world-renowned beaches, ideal spots for fishing and boating, and other parks and attractions that are conducive to social distancing.”
  
Goals to increase the number of visitors and tourism dollars streaming through Tampa will surely come to the fore again once the pandemic wanes and business can safely return to a sense of normalcy. But what remains imperative now, as always, is for local leaders to collaborate on innovative ways to keep the region’s tourism-dependent economy afloat.

To that end, Nipps says, new efforts have sprung up to keep the Tampa Bay Area top of mind among those who wish to visit the region now or in the future.
 
“We always work with our local convention and visitor bureaus, such as Visit Tampa Bay and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, on campaigns designed to attract visitors, and we also work alongside our industry partners such as Airports Council International-North America. We do have our own internal marketing plan at TPA that we’re working on to bring that traffic back if and when it’s safe and that includes online resources to help people know the latest in which airlines are providing service to which routes.” 

Visiting Tampa Bay a new way
 
“The reality is that travel looks much different than it did a few months ago,” admits Visit Tampa Bay President and CEO Santiago Corrada. But those who are visiting the region have reported feeling safe. “Tampa Bay has seen a positive response from visitors in recent months, particularly with how hotels, attractions, and the airport have handled CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance and enhanced safety and cleanliness measures.”
 
Corrada notes that many tourists are choosing their COVID-era vacation destinations based on how well different communities are handling safety protocols.

“We know that those measures play a vital role in whether someone wants to visit our destination, so Visit Tampa Bay launched a reopening guide where visitors can browse through various businesses and their respective protocols to ensure traveler confidence,'' Corrado says. "We have been impressed with the response from our hotels, attractions, and restaurants but not surprised as this is a community that has always worked together to support each other and their customers.”

Still, it hasn’t been all peaches and cream. The tourism and hospitality sectors were walloped by the virus. Local tourism numbers are way down.

Corrada says travel was “at a near standstill” in the spring but has shown signs of some recovery. Hotel occupancy -- a vital statistic in measuring an area’s tourism health -- went from a low average of 23.3% in April to approximately 40% in June.

“Overall, our research shows that intent for travel after initially rising is now flattening out, but we are hopeful that our hotel occupancy will continue to increase with road trips taking the lead.”
 
Planning for the future is difficult at a time when the COVID pandemic is constantly evolving in impact and scope, causing safety protocols to change sometimes on a daily basis.

“We need to be flexible and shift gears when necessary, especially in our advertising approach,” explains Corrada. “In June, Visit Tampa Bay launched a recovery advertising campaign but kept it digital to adjust accordingly as the pandemic ebbed and flowed.”

For example, he says the organization’s promotional campaigns aimed at road-trippers has focused on highlighting outdoor adventures and wide-open spaces.
  
Ultimately, Corrada emphasizes that collaboration with other players on Tampa’s tourism scene has been essential to getting through the challenges.

“We are extremely lucky as a region to have such strong partnerships with local destination marketing organizations, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and [the] airport. We’ve been working hand-in-glove over the past few months on webinars, co-ops, bi-weekly crisis calls, and much more,” he says. “This is unchartered territory for all of us, so the only way to get through this is together. We’ve been very collaborative with each other on data and learnings which has been a tremendous help as we move forward.” 

Social distancing gone wild
 
Two of the largest tourist draws in the area are Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and its adjacent sibling water park Adventure Island. Out of an abundance of caution, the parks were temporarily closed beginning on March 16 and reopened June 11. For Busch Gardens, it was the longest the year-round zoological theme park had been closed to the public since originally opening its gates in 1959.
  
“Since reopening Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, we have learned how much our guests have missed making memories together at our parks,” says Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island Park President Stewart Clark. “While our world looks a bit different than it did in March, we are thankful for the patience of our guests, the dedication of our ambassadors, and the welcoming support from our community.”
 
Stewart says he and his team at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island have been working with state and local health officials as well as third-party medical and epidemiology experts and theme-park industry leaders to determine the best and safest path forward to reopen the parks. 

The parks have implemented a number of safety enhancements, including limiting park capacity by requiring reservations to visit, which can be done online.

“Knowing that our guests would have many questions regarding changes in our park experience, we prepared a dedicated page on our website with information about our enhanced health and safety protocols and frequently asked questions to help guests plan for their visit.”
 
Guest feedback suggests visitors are cognizant of the safety protocols and even appreciative of the efforts that employees are making to help keep the parks clean and everybody visiting safe.

“We are thankful to our guests for following our enhanced park protocol and procedures during this pandemic,” Stewart says.
 
Of course, he is also hearing a lot of questions and comments about the status of popular annual park events and when the long-touted new Busch Gardens roller coaster Iron Gwazi will open.

The latest information released in a second-quarter statement from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island parent company SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment points to Iron Gwazi’s opening date occurring sometime in 2021.

“We know our guests are very excited about these experiences and we will be sure to provide updates as they become available,” he adds. “Before our temporary closure, we opened a brand-new experience at Adventure Island -- Solar Vortex, America’s first dual tailspin waterslide. Our guests have greatly enjoyed the new family raft slide which is the perfect summer splash attraction.”
 
Meanwhile, Stewart says park pass members will receive extensions for the length of the closures and that existing seasons pass holders are receiving a promotion that moves their current benefits up one tier from their current levels.

“We are continually impressed by the passion we see from our Pass Members and we felt it was important to reward their loyalty during our park’s temporary closure.”
 
Looking ahead, Stewart says the goal remains to keep park guests, employees, and the park’s thousands of resident animals as safe as possible.

“We are confident in our ability to operate safely with our enhanced protocols and we will continue to follow the guidance of health officials as conditions evolve.”

This also means working with local private and public leaders to ensure that the future remains bright for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Adventure Island, and the many other local tourist and hospitality organizations critical to the economic health of the region.
 
“As part of the Tampa Bay community for over 60 years, Busch Gardens continues to partner with a number of organizations in the Bay area to best address the ongoing situation,” says Stewart. “As we move forward, these connections and collaborations within the Tampa community will be a significant source of strength, guidance, and support in an ever-changing environment.”

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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.
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