Business & Economy

Summer tourism looks bleak; Scott tells visitors to stay away, for now

Stagecoach Inn
Old Stagecoach Inn in Waterbury remains closed for the time being. Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

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It’s hard to imagine a Vermont governor issuing the message Phil Scott did to tourists on Wednesday: 

Stay Away. For now.

But with the number of cases of coronavirus still high in neighboring states like New York and Massachusetts, Scott said out-of-staters should not visit and if they do come to Vermont, be prepared to quarantine for two weeks.

“My message is to stay home, if you can, and not come to Vermont at this point in time,” Scott said during a press conference on the crisis.

“Hopefully we'll get to a point in the not too-distant future, where...we're actually encouraging people to enjoy our beautiful state, but not today,” he added. 

The blunt, tough message comes at a time when hotel operators, festival directors and other tourist-related businesses are trying to figure out what they will be able to offer this summer. Many have already had to pull the plug on major events.

Hotels and lodging establishments are allowed to take reservations for mid-June or after, but for many, like North Hero House owner Walt Blasberg, who runs a 26-room facility overlooking Lake Champlain, most of the calls have been for cancellations.

Blasberg has already lowered his expectations. He projects seeing only a fraction of the $340,000 his inn normally brings in April through June. He brought a few of his staff back on recently to help out with takeout, but has “no idea” when he’ll be able to bring other employees back.  

“I’m kind of wetting my finger, and holding it up to the wind and seeing which way it blows,” he said in a recent interview. “I just can’t plan.” 

Tourism is big business in Vermont, bringing in $2.6 billion a year and supporting over 30,000 jobs. And summer is the busiest season for the state’s tourism sector, with over 5 million people coming in to enjoy the state’s lakes, rivers, trails, golf courses, local beer and food. Tourists spent $190 million on lodging and $155 million at restaurants between Memorial Day through Labor Day last year.

But there are already signs that this summer will be markedly different. Officials have warned that state parks will not be open for camping on Memorial Day weekend. The Burlington Jazz Festival, a harbinger of summer in the Queen City, is canceled, while the Vermont Brewers Festival has been pushed back to Labor Day.  

“The tourism sector has come to a legal and literal grinding halt,” said Jeff Lawson, vice president of tourism and marketing for the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. 

While inns and hotels have not had to cancel reservations for May 15 and beyond, they remain closed to non-essential visitors under Scott’s executive order. John Barwick, owner of the Old Stagecoach Inn in Waterbury, expected the state to either have pushed back the May reopening date or to have provided more guidance by now. 

“Many people are not wanting to come if they don’t know restaurants are open, or if Vermont is open in general,” he said.

For his guests coming from farther away, it’s likely their cancellations will not be renewed at a later date while “closer people are kind of in a holding pattern to see what transpires” before deciding when to visit.

“No one is going to visit us for two days and then quarantine for two weeks,” Barwick said.  

Heather Pelham, commissioner of the state’s Department of Tourism and Marketing, said the governor would soon address the May 15 gray area in an update to his executive order. 

She added that there will be a period where it will be “impractical” for out-of-state visitors to come up even after hotels open with the two week quarantine order still in effect. The department will be encouraging Vermonters to travel to -- and stay in -- other parts of their home state in the meantime. The tourism department has even launched a virtual events page for Vermonters and would-be tourists alike. 

“As we do slowly reopen different types of businesses, there's a real opportunity for Vermonters to support that tourism infrastructure, so that those businesses can start bringing in some other revenues,” she said. 

People enjoy a sunset from a sailboat on Lake Champlain on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Economist's initial forecasts for Vermont summer tourism are grim.

Tom Kavet, the Legislature’s economist, has been assessing the impact of the pandemic on the state’s coffers. His initial forecast for fiscal year 2021, which he stressed in an interview was “fraught with uncertainty,” includes an almost 41% hit to the state’s rooms and meals tax. And almost all of that projected decline would be from reduced tourism. 

While Kavet has not done quarterly forecasts, he said he suspects Vermont resort owners are anticipating a 70-90% decline this summer. 

“Even if all the restrictions were lifted, I’m not sure how quickly consumers would come back and feel comfortable traveling,” he said.  

While Scott on Wednesday eased restrictions on golf courses and other outdoor recreation, he was clear those amenities should be enjoyed and explored by Vermonters and that out-of-staters should stay put where they are.

Jay Zargosky, an economist at Boston University, said the Vermont tourism sector should “basically write off” this summer as a learning experience for how to draw people back for leaf peeping and ski seasons. 

“When people go on vacations, they want to go to restaurants, they want to be with their friends and family,” he said. 

Jane Ackerman, owner of Norwich-based event planner Kith and Kin, said her weddings in Vermont and other Northeast states have “been completely wiped out” for this summer. Some clients are postponing until next year rather than canceling, and she’s pivoted to doing flowers in the meantime. 

“There's absolutely nothing we can do about this,” said Ackerman. “Our only choice is to be positive and creative, and so that's what I'm doing.” 

Vermont’s drive market: a blessing and a curse

Simon Hudson, director of tourism research at the University of South Carolina, predicted it will take two to three years for international travel to bounce back. But he expects travel by car to slowly resume in July and August. As most Vermont tourists drive in from nearby Massachusetts and New York, this positions the state fairly well once out-of-staters do start visiting again. 

“People have been in quarantine for so long I think you can sense this desire to get out and about,” Hudson said. 

Tim Piper, president of the Vermont Inn and Bed and Breakfast Association, said he thinks the state’s innkeepers could “position ourselves to be the good toe in the water” once people start travelling again. 

“The beauty of Vermont is that all the activities are based on social distancing anyway versus taking your kid to a place like Disney World,” he said. 

Kavet agreed that the tourism industry in Vermont, with its proximity to urban areas and abundant outdoor recreation, will likely not be as severely impacted as some locations. But he warned that any “highly-publicized outbreaks” at resorts or other destinations “could quickly reverse any perceived tourism ‘success.’” 

Hokkaido, a major tourist destination, provides a cautionary tale in lifting restrictions too early. The northernmost Japanese island contained its initial outbreak fairly well, only to be forced back into lockdown after a stronger second wave of infections hit

Scott has expressed concerns that people coming up to Vermont from areas with larger outbreaks could unknowingly bring the virus with them. Massachusetts, where 21% of Vermont visitors come from, had almost 1,200 people test positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. 

“And that's why we have to be really careful and cautious about what we do and when we open up, because that could be an attraction to some from other states,” he said at a recent press conference.

The governor added that a task force is looking into measures to have in place for snowbirds coming back up to their homes in Vermont. State officials actually are projecting more second home owners than normal will come up this summer, according to a recent Seven Days article.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, chair of Health and Welfare, said her committee will be talking to the health department about this in the next month. She said there would need to be a balance struck between the two-week quarantine order and business as usual for tourism businesses to reopen.

“We don’t want to scare people,” she said. “But we want to make sure the health department has information they can provide to innkeepers or lodging establishments so that they feel their workers and their clientele are being protected.” 

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of John Barwick's name.

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Elizabeth Gribkoff

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She graduated from UVM's Environmental Studies program in 2013, receiving departmental honors for her thesis on women's farming networks in Chile and Vermont. Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked in conservation and sustainable agriculture. Most recently, she was a newsroom and reporting intern with VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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