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Janet Clerkin, tourism and public information coordinator for Oswego County. “It is hard to predict anything relative to an economic environment that none of us have ever experienced,” she says.

Tourism Takes Tumble

COVID-19 takes toll on Oswego County’s tourism industry

By Lou Sorendo

The tourism sector is one of the hardest-hit in the nation by the outbreak of COVID-19, and Oswego County is no exception.

The sector is one of the most lucrative in the county, generating in excess of $300 million per year.

Janet Clerkin, tourism and public information coordinator for the Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism & Planning, said of the typical revenue streams that Oswego County relies on in terms of its tourism industry — the “bed” or occupancy tax — will be significantly lower this year as a result of COVID-19.

The occupancy tax paid by visitors is the main revenue stream for the county’s tourism marketing program, Clerkin said.

She said the county does not have occupancy tax numbers yet for the three-month period of March through May.

However, the New York State Association of Counties estimates a loss in occupancy tax of between $97,316 and $162,237 depending on the length and severity of the COVID-19 recession, she noted.

“This would have a serious impact on the county’s tourism marketing program. We are also concerned about the status of our New York state tourism matching funds grant,” she said.

The New York State Department of Economic Development has been provided with funds to award to tourism promotion agencies for the 2020 tourism matching funds program year.

The purpose of the program is to provide funding to TPAs to market their destination in order to increase the number of visitors and the level of spending across New York state.

Meanwhile, Clerkin noted the cancellation of Harborfest is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harborfest is one of the few admission-free music festivals in the country.

“We don’t have recent economic impact data for Harborfest, but the event attracts up to 75,000 visitors and is an important draw for residents across the Central New York area,” she said. “The festival is a quality event for the community, and also serves as a revenue generator in terms of sales tax and vendors. It is a significant loss.”

From an overall county standpoint, Clerkin said bed and sales tax will likely see significant declines “but maybe more important is the revenue and job lost associated with employers and employees who work in our various tourism-related businesses.

“Most of these are seasonal in nature and even a short break in their typical fiscal year can be devastating.”

Sales tax revenues to dip

For obvious reasons, sales tax revenues also plunged during the pandemic threat.

Oswego County collected $6.7 million in sales tax during the first half of 2019.

“It is hard to predict anything relative to an economic environment that none of us have ever experienced,” Clerkin said. “However, so far we are seeing about a 30% reduction in sales tax revenue for the weeks correlating to the pandemic and NY-PAUSE.”

Clerkin said it is a period of transition for the county’s Community Development, Tourism & Planning department as a result of COVID-19.

“Some of our spring advertising had already been placed when the pandemic hit, but we put most of our spring and summer campaign on hold,” she said. “We are waiting for guidance on when we can resume marketing to visitors from outside of the area.”

In the meantime, Clerkin said her office is using social media to encourage outdoor recreation and working internally on new materials to be ready when staff can resume marketing.

“We’re developing a regional social media campaign, and partnering with the Syracuse Hancock International Airport for a national campaign to promote the region when travel opens back up,” she said.

Her office also created a “Guess the Location!” Facebook campaign to get people to think about visiting unique places in Oswego County, including historic sites, waterfront, beaches and fishing and hiking spots.

The tourism office is also working with Operation Oswego County, the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency, SUNY Oswego and Oswego Health on a series of community videos “that draw on qualities such as perseverance, strength and collaboration as we come through the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.