Tourism rebounds even as pandemic persists

By: - April 20, 2021 6:30 am
A couple poses in Portsmouth on a sunny day near the harbor.

Melissa and Nick Kielbania of Ipswich, Massachusetts, vacationed on the Seacoast in September and February because New Hampshire had fewer COVID-19 restrictions than other nearby states. (Courtesy)

By September, Melissa and Nick Kielbania of Ipswich, Massachusetts, needed a vacation. Their three kids were home, attending school remotely, and their jobs – his at a hospital, hers with the post office – felt relentless. They chose New Hampshire because it was the closest state with the fewest COVID-19 restrictions.

“Our governor (Republican Charlie Baker), who I totally appreciate, is going by the numbers, and he’s super cautious,” Melissa Kielbania said. “Maine didn’t want us. New Hampshire is cautious, too, but I kind of feel like they think you need to live a little bit, too.”

The Kielbanias aren’t alone.

The state’s travel and tourism market has been doing well for months and is expected to end the year at pre-pandemic levels. On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced the state’s remaining restrictions on business and public activities would be lifted by May 7. And with Saturday’s expiration of the state mask mandate, New Hampshire became the only state in New England without one.

“I think a lot of people are looking for the state with the least restrictions,” said Mike Somers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association. “I think we are getting a good, hard look because the governor is making those statements that we are going to be back to normal by Memorial Day.”

There’s no question the state’s travel sector took a hit after COVID-19 prompted a stay-at-home order, three-month closure of overnight accommodations, and weeks-long ban on inside dining.

The number of overnight travelers in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 first hit the state, was down by 800,000 over spring 2019, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism.

Rooms and meals taxes for those three months, which overlapped with the closure of hotels and motels to all but essential travel, were down $36.2 million over 2019, according to the Department of Revenue Administration.

The state won’t see anything near the $387 million in rooms and meals taxes it projected, before the pandemic, for this year. But each month, that gap decreases, from $10 million in July to $3.4 million last month.

“We are making a slow and steady climb back,” said Carollynn J. Lear, assistant commissioner. The department believes improved consumer confidence and the relaxing of travel restrictions could leave the state 17 percent shy of its 2021 projections.

Kris Neilsen, spokesperson for the Division of Travel and Tourism, is seeing the same.

“Demand is up,” she said. “In the Lakes Region, we are hearing that visitors are booking longer stays over last year. Summer is already filling up.”

Somers said the biggest threat to hospitality businesses is no longer COVID-19 restrictions but a shortage of employees.

“One of the real challenges you have is that unemployment benefits have been extended to a lot of those in the service and retail industry,” he said. “We are essentially competing with unemployment for workers.”

Jason Bartlett, general manager of the Wentworth by the Sea resort hotel in New Castle, agreed. He held a job fair this month and hired 15 of the 25 people who attended. “It was a big need for us,” he said.

Bartlett, like several others whose livelihoods depend on tourists, said business began picking up last summer, shortly after Sununu announced hotels and other accommodations could go from 50 percent capacity to 100 percent capacity.

“That was announced on the Thursday before July 4, and by Saturday we were sold out,” Bartlett said. “I personally think New Hampshire has done a great job from the beginning. We’ve been in a better position than Maine and Massachusetts, and there has been a lot of interest from those states.”

The exception has been business travel because many employers have embraced virtual options for workers.

Steve Duprey, president of Foxfire Property Management, has 478 hotel rooms across five hotels in Concord, a city he said attracts more corporate than leisure travelers. He opened the Courtyard by the Marriot Friday, after being closed for a year, with nine rooms and a wedding booked.

“I think the tourism market is going to be fine and have a record year,” he said. “I think corporate travel will be slower to come back.”

Michelle Davis, tourism manager for the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth, said they’ve had more requests for travel guides than last year, especially from states within driving distance, and are beginning to see the area’s bigger venues announcing summer schedules, including Prescott Park Arts Festival, 3S Artspace, and the Music Hall, all in Portsmouth. Forty of the city’s restaurants plan to offer outside seating. And after canceling last year, the chamber will hold its annual summer kickoff event, Hit the Decks, in May, this year for a week instead of a day.

Up north, Craig Clemmer, director of sales and marketing for the Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, said the resort had a good winter season and expects summer revenue to be stronger than 2018 and 2019, two of its best years. He cited a combination of the resort’s recent expansion and the ability to socially distance in a state with so much outdoor recreation.

It still feels too soon to retire COVID-19 protections for Dr. Lisa Adams, co-chair of Dartmouth’s COVID-19 task force and professor in the school’s medicine program. With an average of 440 new COVID-19 cases a day, hospitalization increasing, and only 25 percent of the state’s population fully vaccinated, she’d like to see the mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions in place for at least another six months.

“I am never one for wanting to pit the economy against public health,” she said. “By and large, decisions that are good for the public health are good for the economy. We know we don’t do anyone a service by opening up perhaps too quickly and having to shut down, or having a big uptick in cases.”

David Culhane, co-owner of the White Mountain Tavern in Lincoln, was especially happy to see the mask mandate go. The tavern was fined $1,000 in December for violating the mandate after photos surfaced of customers sitting closer than allowed, people unmasked, and two musicians on the stage when only one at a time was allowed. He negotiated it down to $600, and said he will continue requiring staff to wear masks but not customers.

He said lifting the mandate will “absolutely” make people more likely to resume eating in restaurants and coming out for live music. “With everyone having access to being vaccinated and everyone eager to get back out there, I think this is going to be a very, very busy year.”

The state’s push to get residents vaccinated made Angie Sepela of Pennsylvania more comfortable visiting friends in New Hampshire, where she lived for 20 years. She had been traveling here once a year and thought about returning in December.

“I wasn’t going to do anything crazy, just visit with some friends,” she said. “It just didn’t feel responsible.”

She’s now seriously considering visiting around Memorial Day.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.