South Sound tourism was riding high; then came coronavirus

South Sound tourism was riding high; then came coronavirus

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — One year ago the tourism industry in Tacoma and Pierce County was experiencing a boom.

Approximately 1,100 new hotel rooms were going open in the city over a two-year period. A small cruise line had even started making calls at the city’s waterway, and people who had never thought of coming to Tacoma were vacationing there.

“We always go into Seattle,” Joan Parker, who was visiting from San Francisco, said last May. “I’ve been to Seattle quite a few times but never came to Tacoma.”

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The coronavirus pandemic and nationwide shutdown of travel has brought all of that to a sudden, very stark halt.

“Every single week when the new data comes out, it’s prefaced with, these are the lowest numbers we’ve ever seen. Then the next week comes, these are the lowest numbers we’ve ever seen, then the next week comes,” said Dean Burke, CEO of Travel Tacoma-Mt. Rainier.

One metric of the drop is in hotel occupancy, which indicates how many rooms are booked by guests. When 2020 began, the new year looked bright.

“We certainly hit the ground hard in the first quarter with a great opening,” Burke said.

The year began with an average of more than 60% of rooms filled, climbing to a high of more than 70% by mid-January. After the March statewide shutdown, hotel occupancy dropped dramatically to around 35%.

But there is some good news in the numbers. While the percentage of hotel rooms booked nationally has continued to fall to around 20%, hotels in Tacoma and Pierce County began seeing customers return in late April after the 35% low. These guests were not coming to the South Sound as tourists but as workers.

“Supply chain, trucking, getting that toilet paper back to Costco, right?” Burke said. “We sit on a big port here. We sit on a big military base as well.”

Burke said Tacoma and Pierce County may be among the first areas to see a revival of tourism as pent-up demand causes travel-hungry visitors to experiment with shorter trips closer to home.

“Recently we’ve seen a massive uptick, just in the last week, of people searching for things to do — looking online, searching for where to go, what’s open, what kind of summer things are happening, tourist-type things,” Burke said.