Experts: Regional travel picks up, but air traffic still depressed
Regional travel has started to rebound, but air traffic locally remains depressed and most international trips and cruises are on hold because of COVID-19 precautions, travel industry officials say.
Tami Reist, president and CEO of Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, said north Alabama is experiencing a surge in visitors traveling to and from the Gulf Coast this month in the midst of school spring breaks.
“I’ve been talking to our hotel managers, and they’re doing very well,” she said. “We’re seeing travelers from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio stopping over here on their way to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. They’re coming in to explore the outdoors and go on the waterfall trail and to golf.”
She said the number of visitors are “way up” from 2020 but haven’t reached the pre-COVID numbers even with the rollout of vaccines accelerating.
“We’re seeing our numbers climb. They’re not quite what they were in 2019, but they’re getting back to where they were,” she said.
She said the state’s Gulf Coast visitor numbers are up significantly from last year. She said the curfews placed on the Miami Beach, Florida, spring-breakers are helping Alabama’s beaches, too.
“What’s gone on in Miami Beach has brought some pushover into Orange Beach and Gulf Shores,” she said. “Our officials down there are handling the increase extremely well.”
A Huntsville International Airport spokesperson said despite a spike in traffic during the holidays, air travel remains depressed because of pandemic concerns.
“There’s been no big uptick in air travel. We saw a 35% bump around the holidays,” the airport’s Jana Steen said. “But since then, the numbers have gone back down. There are too many uncertainties with COVID and now the variants are out there. We don’t know what to expect. The flight volume has decreased.”
She said nearly all business air travelers remain grounded. “Aviation as a whole is doing its best to operate,” Steen said. “We haven’t lost any carriers that we had pre-COVID. Many carriers have left smaller markets.”
Liz Sutton, president of Alabama World Travel in Montgomery, said the coronavirus halted leisure travel, and the vaccinations are slowly allowing tourism to regain a footing.
“The cruise lines have adapted and are putting health and safety protocols in place that will rival any other destination. It is remarkable to see the investment and commitment they have to keep travelers safe,” she said. “With some cruise lines requiring (a vaccination) in order to cruise, I do feel that vaccines will open the door to travel.”
She said travelers should know the health protocols of their destinations before they leave home. Some destinations require on-demand testing and possible quarantine upon arrival and some require an antibody test, she said.
“When traveling to the Caribbean, some excursions and off-resort tours are limited,” she said. “Every single destination is different and it’s ever-changing.”
Sutton said travelers should have more options in the last half of 2021 and into 2022.
Sutton said she’s encouraged the company’s phones have been ringing with interested travelers asking, “I have my vaccine and I’m ready to travel. Where can I go?”
She is recommending family vacations to the Florida Keys, Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For regional trips, the travel experts suggested Tennessee and Kentucky.
Once the vaccinations start providing widespread coverage in the United States, Sutton expects the pent-up demand from travelers to create shortages in travel bargains.
Sutton said 2022 is shaping up to be a busy year with bookings, and she encouraged travelers to book early.
“They should plan their trips as soon as possible to avoid disappointment as space is booking quickly,” she said. “We expect 2022 to be a solid year of travel so space and availability will be the issue for those who do not plan early. I encourage travelers to connect to their travel advisers and secure their travel for 2022 to avoid disappointment and hopefully to secure better pricing before the demand drives the cost up higher.”