It took grit, determination, and a strong community to help Duluth’s tourism industry survive 2020. Businesses from every sector of hospitality suffered immensely as a result of the pandemic: lodging, attractions, retail, and restaurants are barely hanging on as the crisis continues into the new year.
Because people are the heart of hospitality, the devastating impact on workers in this industry is a harsh reality that cannot be overlooked. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reports more than 7,000 people are directly employed within Duluth’s tourism industry, which is experiencing unemployment rates twice the average of other industries. Projections for 2021 don’t show improvement in jobless rates until late spring/early summer.
Now we know what Duluth’s landscape, physically and financially, looks like without a visitor economy — and it’s ugly. Even with a remarkable groundswell of support from residents who continue to rally around local businesses, we simply don’t have the volume to bolster bottom lines without the influx of revenue generated by 6.7 million annual visitors. Duluth’s hotel occupancy levels outpaced most of Minnesota from June through October, helping the hospitality industry fare far better than many destinations. But it still wasn’t enough for every business to survive.
However, silver linings do exist. And, as 2021 approaches, it’s important to shine a spotlight on some of the positive outcomes resulting from the pandemic and embrace them as we move toward recovery in the months ahead.
Businesses came together, forming partnerships to cross-promote one another in creative and successful ways. Collaborating through marketing they shared sanitizing protocols and safety measures that reinforced to people that they can travel to Duluth and remain safe during their visits. This spirit of cooperation is anticipated to continue long after we emerge from the shutdown.
Many of us experienced a renewed appreciation for the natural beauty of Duluth as we explored the outdoors and took to the trails for fresh air, a break from virtual meetings, or to reset priorities. This has been an opportunity for locals to relish in the amazing attributes that entice visitors to our beloved city and appreciate this resilient community we call home.
As we await the emotional recovery that 2021 promises, as infections eventually subside and mandates are lifted, the financial health of the visitor economy will begin to be restored. Visit Duluth relies on research from Tourism Economics, US Travel Association, Explore Minnesota, and Destination Analysts to define trends and prepare for the gradual return of meetings, conventions, special events and sports competitions, beginning in late spring and carrying forward throughout the year.
Let’s remember to celebrate when there’s an hour wait for an indoor table at your favorite restaurant, when there’s no available parking in front of your favorite store, and when family and friends come for a visit to take in the attractions and stay in a hotel. Let’s appreciate the value of Duluth’s tourism industry and continue working together to ensure it thrives once again. Cheers to brighter days ahead in 2021!
Anna Tanski is president and CEO of Visit Duluth. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune at the invitation of the Opinion page.