Judging by June tourist tax collections, Duluth’s hospitality industry is making a strong comeback from the lull brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourist taxes on local hotels, motels, bars and eateries brought in $1.28 million in June — a figure comparable to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, this year’s collections for the month were just 1.8% shy of what the city saw in June 2019.
Those are promising numbers to Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, an organization tasked with marketing the city as a tourist destination.
“It’s very clear that the messaging that we have been very strategic in putting out about Duluth being open and safe to visit and being ready to welcome visitors has really resonated,” she said.
Tanski considers the rebound even more remarkable, considering that it occurred at a time when no meetings or conventions were taking place at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, as they would typically. But she was quick to note that there have been numerous inquiries of late about such events returning to that venue.
Jennifer Carlson, finance director for the city of Duluth, said she was very pleased with the June tourism tax collections, which exceeded expectations by nearly 35%.
“What I think has helped this year is: one, I think people want to get out, they’re ready to go, and with Duluth being an outdoor city, it feels like a safe place to go. … And I also think the one-time funds from the federal government stimulus package has helped people to travel and spend, as well,” she said.
Tanski didn’t paint an overly rosy picture of the local tourism scene, however, despite the strong performance of the industry in June.
“It’s very encouraging, but of course, it comes with the caveat that we’re also seeing more and more impact on businesses having to restrict hours or days of operation due to workforce shortages, and they just don’t have the capacity to manage the volume of visitors. So, it’s a struggle, and we are definitely not out of the woods yet,” she said.
Despite the recent strong showing, for the first six months of this year, Duluth’s tourist tax collections continue to lag more than 10% behind what they were for the first half of 2019.
Yet if the COVID-19 pandemic can be brought back under greater control and the economy doesn’t take another nosedive, Carlson said Duluth’s tourism industry could be poised for a continued real rebound. She noted that Duluth’s five biggest months for tourism are June through October.
Tanski said that with the border closed, Duluth has been unable to host many of the Canadian visitors it has in the past.
Visit Duluth has focused its marketing efforts on several domestic markets, namely the Twin Cities, Rochester, Des Moines, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“We’re in that sort of drive-radius. That’s as far as some of our traditional marketing. But on social media, our reach is going far beyond that,” Tanski said.