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Tourism Is Back

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, more people are traveling, more events are taking place in CNY 

After two rough years of COVID-induced cancellations and trepidation, tourism is back. 

Through a combination of lifted restrictions and restored consumer confidence, local and nonlocal tourists have returned to recreating in Central New York.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in occupancy rate year-to-date over last year for our hotel rooms,” said Debbie Trimble, owner The Eis House in Mexico. “People seem genuinely happy to be traveling again. Travelers come from across the country and as far away as Germany and they all have such interesting stories to tell. We are also seeing more guests returning to the restaurant from the local camps and campgrounds in the area.”

The facility also hosts events, a sector of the hospitality and tourism industry that has struggled during the past two years.

Dave Turner, director of the Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism, and Planning, hopes that the effect of the economy, including scarcity of goods, high gas prices, overall inflation, are not detrimental to hospitality businesses that have been struggling.

“Everyone is taking different approaches, depending on what their market is for visitors and different impacts of the current economy,” Turner said.

His department’s target market for visitors is a seven-hour drive time. However, soaring gas prices may mean fewer visitors may be interested in traversing the region to visit CNY. He added that with energy prices up 35% and food costs up an average of 10% pre-pandemic, some people may feel more inclined to stay at home.

“The stock market has not been great lately,” Turner said. “That impacts a lot of the disposable income for some folks, especially retired visitors. It’s a wait-and-see scenario.”

For some people, “cutting back” may mean a regional vacation instead of an international trip, which may draw some people to CNY and keep locals here instead of abroad.

“We have adjusted our marketing to get more staycation folks to come from other parts of New York to come to Oswego County,” Turner said. “We will continue with those investments.”

While spending in general has declined in areas like retail, tourism-related spending has been somewhat stronger than retail spending. Turner attributes that to locals’ desire to get out and do something.

The repeal of pre-departure COVID-19 testing may help improve the rate of inbound foreign travelers compared with last season.

“We have a good number of folks who come for our world-class sport fishing,” Turner said. “We’ve had visitors from every state in US and 30-plus countries in the world. Hopefully, the removal of this requirement for our foreign visitors will help inspire folks and encourage them to try to address the pent-up desire they have to be here.”

Turner thinks that the slightly lower hotel occupancy reflects the wariness of travelers regarding COVID-19. Many turned to short-term rentals such as Airbnb. These rates have not rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels.

Big Events Are Back

The New York State Fairgrounds, a facility in Syracuse with 50 buildings spread out through 350 acres, often hosts events such as car races, horse shows, RV exhibitions, food truck rodeos and large trade expos.

“The space is used year-round by various groups,” said Sean Henessey, interim fair director. “Many of these great events are free events. They can take part in those horse shows and other events. One thing that’s a real benefit is the Empire State Trail that runs through the fair. I like to stop people while I’m on the grounds to say hello and ask why they’re there. I recently met people biking through the fairgrounds and they use the local hotels and restaurants. The effects on mom-and-pop shops is positive.”

BluesFest represents a recent event at the fairgrounds. Henessey said hundreds of people attended as “people are desperate for something to do and to have it in an open space helps,” he said. “The fairgrounds is for food, fun, family and farming and not just for the 13 days of the fair.”

Another big event that draws local and regional attention is Oswego Harborfest. The four-day music and food festival has been canceled the past two years. To Peter Miles, executive director, Harborfest’s revival signals tourism’s return to CNY.

“There are so many people delighted to see it’s returning,” he said. “A lot of people felt as frustrated as we were that we couldn’t have the festival, but they understood. There was a general feeling is that they’re glad it’s returning and they’re looking forward to it.”

People like Myles, Henessey and Trimble are hoping for a banner year, as shutting down for nearly two years has been tough on many organizations and businesses. In addition to lost revenue, they may face lost interest from what were loyal guests.