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Coronavirus decreases tourism in Vancouver

'Staycations' account for sizable number of visitors to city's attractions

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
3 Photos
Tami Nesburg, left, and her co-worker Randy Krenelka take a walk during their lunch break Thursday at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Attractions such as the visitor center, reconstructed Fort Vancouver and Pearson Air Museum are closed, but the parking lots and walking paths are open.
Tami Nesburg, left, and her co-worker Randy Krenelka take a walk during their lunch break Thursday at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Attractions such as the visitor center, reconstructed Fort Vancouver and Pearson Air Museum are closed, but the parking lots and walking paths are open. (Photos by Alisha Jucevic/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Tourism in Vancouver has been estimated to have dropped by nearly one-third this year compared to last year. The decrease comes as economic shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 continue.

Through July, about 5.14 million people from outside Clark County visited the city, according to data used by tourism marketing agency Visit Vancouver USA. The agency uses figures from a data consulting company that calculates the number of visitors who come from at least 50 miles away.

The sharpest decline in one month, about 52.5 percent, came in April, the first full month after statewide shutdown orders went into effect.

Tourism in the area typically reaches its peak in the summer months, and July, with a relatively low 29 percent drop, was the most active month since the beginning of the pandemic.

With indoor activity options largely unavailable, outdoor recreation and cultural areas have seen the most out-of-area visitors, said Michelle McKenzie, director of marketing for Visit Vancouver USA.

The tourism agency projected sharp declines months ago. One of the primary questions at the time: How bad will it be?

“We forecasted pretty dire numbers,” McKenzie said. “What we’re seeing is a little better than what we had projected.”

But the effects of the virus on the local economy have lasted longer than initially expected. McKenzie said that the rebound from the tourism downturn will take longer than predicted, as well.

Local parks, local visitors

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is the most popular tourist destination in Clark County, McKenzie said. Following it are Vancouver Waterfront Park, the Vancouver Farmers Market and Esther Short Park — including the festivals and events that take place there.

Last year, the fort attracted roughly 1 million visitors who spent over $60 million, according to an annual report by the National Parks Service.

The site partially reopened in June, when it allowed access to parking lots and outdoor areas. But prominent sections such as the Pearson Air Museum, visitor center and reconstructed fort remain closed.

The park is still not collecting entry fees during the shutdowns, and green spaces are open every day.

“People have definitely been using the green space,” said Alex Patterson, the site’s facility manager. “The maintenance duties don’t really rest during a pandemic.”

With a lack of entry revenue, the park needed to temporarily halt several minor maintenance projects earlier this year. But a larger project to replace roofs at the reconstructed fort during fall is on track after the site secured other federal funding, Patterson said.

While maintenance staff has largely returned to normal work, employees in closed areas of the site continue to work from home. The site is also planning to roll out a virtual field trip program for children later this year.

The fort certainly hasn’t been abandoned, but like other areas with outdoor recreation available, most of the visitors are likely local.

“People are staying closer to home and trending more toward staycations,” McKenzie said.

State and local officials have stressed the importance of staying as close to home as possible to avoid transmitting COVID-19 to larger groups.

While the number of visitors coming to the area is down, activity at local parks has picked up. At the county’s four regional parks, the number of parking fee payments has increased nearly 25 percent in July and August compared to last year, Clark County Parks spokeswoman Magan Reed said.

“It’s basically the equivalent of having a large event in our parks every day,” Reed said. “We notice, when things are closing, that people are going to go to the parks pretty much more than anything else.”

But when locals who itch for some time outdoors flock to these spots, other issues can arise.

Earlier this month, the Vancouver Police Department tweeted a photo of cars parked illegally on the side of the road near Frenchman’s Bar Park and warned that officers were still enforcing parking regulations.

To reduce costs, the county hired fewer seasonal staff workers this year. But the maintenance needs have not just persisted; they’ve become more intense.

More trash and vandalism have appeared, Reed said. With some bathrooms open, parks employees have also taken more time than usual to clean them due to increased use and to prevent virus spread.

“Our parks employees are really busy,” Reed said. “It has certainly been a challenge.”

Reed advised that those who arrive and find a noticeably crowded park either return another time or find a different park.

Marketing pivot

The tourism shifts also forced Visit Vancouver USA to rethink its outreach efforts. Part of the agency’s revenue comes from hotel fees, and occupancy rates have dipped between 28 percent and 55 percent each month compared to last year, according to data used by the agency.

“We really pivoted our marketing strategy in March,” McKenzie said.

Outreach efforts have been tailored more to locals this year. Marketing to tourists will return at some point, but McKenzie said that this year’s dynamics will likely shift where the agency focuses its efforts.

“We’re lucky in that we had a good-size local following already,” McKenzie said. “I think that’s something that we’ll want to continue even as we, hopefully, reopen soon.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter