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How tourist towns might survive the pandemic

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The city of Anaheim, residential population 360,000, greets about 25 million visitors each year, give or take. These numbers might be shocking for an Orange County suburb if not for its biggest attraction: Disneyland. When Walt Disney picked Anaheim, a town once populated by orange groves, as the destination for his utopic amusement park, he single-handedly put the city on the map for most American tourists.

In the decades since, Anaheim and its shops and restaurants have generally benefited from this public-private partnership (although Disney has, on more than one occasion, sought to leverage its corporate power to negotiate deals with local politicians). The city has consistently broken visitor and spending records over the past six years, fueled by Disneyland’s ever-expanding magical empire, annual conventions like VidCon and Anime Expo, and live music and sporting events at the Honda Center.

Then, the pandemic happened.

In Anaheim — a city that has structured its economy around tourism — small business owners were hit hard when their largest attraction closed virtually overnight. Disneyland has closed only twice before in its history: the day after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. What no one expected in March was for a closure to last beyond the summer and into the fall. While the parks were given the green light to open in early July, California saw a surge of infections in late June, and unlike Florida, which plowed ahead with Disney World’s reopening, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Disney’s reopening be delayed again, this time indefinitely.

With many cities instituting caps on lodging and public attractions, tourism-aligned businesses are, for lack of a better word, screwed without visitors. Hotel bookings have sharply fallen, restaurants have lost consistent tourism dollars, and Americans overall have been less inclined to shop and splurge in the midst of an economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. Municipalities could lose up to $134 billion this year and more than $360 billion through 2022, according to an analysis by the National League of Cities. That translates to declining sales tax revenue and inevitable budget cuts at a city level.

“Our city, our businesses, and our people are very dependent on tourism coming through,” said Jay Burress, the CEO of Visit Anaheim, a tax-funded hotel and resort advertising promotion group. “The city has become dependent on those transient occupancy hotel tax collections, which make up over 55 percent of our general fund every year.”

Anaheim, which is set to face a $100 million deficit, isn’t alone in its financial struggles. A Bloomberg data report found that Hawaii’s beach towns, California’s wine country, and some of Colorado’s ski towns have been similarly impacted.

For these local tourism-driven economies, the big, unanswerable question is: What happens to jobs when throngs of people no longer show up? What happens to the local businesses built around the tourism influx, which can’t be sustained for months by local residents?

To say some store owners and managers are worried is an understatement, especially in locations that haven’t seen a strong recovery. There’s a larger looming question in their minds: When visitors do come back, will the businesses still be there to serve them?

Downtown Disney, the shopping district by Anaheim’s Disneyland, reopened on July 9.
Downtown Disney, the shopping district by Anaheim’s Disneyland, reopened on July 9.
Derek Lee/Disneyland Resort

“In large cities with a lot of tourism, like New York City or Washington, DC, when travelers stop showing up, there’s still the rest of the economy to pick up the slack,” said Pamela Caskie, an expert in tourism and municipal economic development. “For tourism economies in smaller towns, they’re entirely dependent on visitors coming in.” In partnership with the US Cluster Mapping Project, Caskie, who has spent two decades working as a regional manager from Colorado to Vermont, created an index that measures a county’s dependence on tourism.

According to her index, Orange County is ranked 46th out of 3,140 counties. While the city of Anaheim is primarily dependent on Disneyland and its convention center as tourism “anchors,” the county has a very diverse population and economy otherwise. “I’m sure the city of Anaheim is hurting more than the county,” she said.

“When Disney opens” is a phrase I commonly heard in conversations with hospitality workers and small business owners in the area. A Disney reopening is a potentially dangerous dream: The Daily Beast reported in early September that Disney has been hiding information about coronavirus outbreaks in its Downtown Disney shopping district, only disclosing to unions when their workers fell ill.

To some, a reopening would reflect a step closer to “normalcy,” translating into a bump to business that’s been sorely lacking for the past six months. The fate of the city of Anaheim — and its business owners and residents — is tied to the fate of Disneyland, because the attraction employs about 32,000 workers and is the largest and most influential employer in town. However, the entertainment giant is planning to lay off 28,000 employees across its parks, experiences, and consumer products division, although not all these workers are based in Anaheim.

“We are dependent on large gatherings in a lot of ways with Disneyland and the Convention Center,” Burress told me. “Now that sports and concerts are held off, we’re planning to start our marketing efforts with Disneyland but it depends on when Disney opens.”

While The Ranch Restaurant and Saloon, a fine-dining establishment with a banquet and dance venue, doesn’t exclusively cater to Disney visitors, park attendees account for one-third of their year-round client base, which also consists of corporate convention attendees and Orange County locals with disposable income. Now that conventions have stalled, the restaurant is relying solely on their “loyal customer base” who have the extra money to spend, said Michael Wildey, its director of operations.

Like most service establishments, The Ranch had to furlough part of its 160-people team in the spring, but it is slowly bringing back workers depending on demand. Without their go-to Disney client base in the summer, Wildey is hopeful that things can change in the fall. “We typically see conventions from late September through the end of April, but my feeling is that corporate business isn’t going to come back anytime soon,” Wildey told me. “So we’re trying to attract families who want something special during the holidays.” But he remains hopeful for a potential Disney reopening that would likely bring in extra business.

Local politicians are similarly bullish about how Disney could bring a boost for city revenue in the fourth quarter. Anaheim’s mayor recently called on Gov. Newsom to discuss statewide theme park reopening guidelines, arguing that the move would support “hundreds of small businesses [and] tens of thousands of jobs,” reported the Voice of Orange County.

For Anaheim, though, a suburban hub of now-closed attractions doesn’t seem to offer much to tourists, unlike the national parks, beaches, and mountain towns that travelers are gravitating toward. A few areas, particularly those that are accessible by car and close to public lands, are experiencing an unexpected boom compared to the regions that typically rely on visitors to fly in. Americans are still traveling a significant amount, but towns that attract more guests also risk increasing the rate of infections in the region.

In Telluride, Colorado, which is best known for its ski resorts and seasonal festivals, business has held surprisingly steady through the summer, although locals aren’t sure how long this streak would last. Visitors, some of whom are second homeowners, have flocked to public lands nearby, exploring the area’s trails, rivers, and campsites.

Early on, residents were not just worried about the likelihood of increased infections, but also the lasting damage a sudden influx of travelers could have on the environment. (San Miguel County tested almost all 8,000 Telluride residents in April, and the town has a relatively low infection rate.)

“The area is experiencing ‘steady flow,’ which is the word we’re all using to describe how things lately are quite steady and consistent,” said Daiva Chesonis, co-owner of Between the Covers bookstore. “Before Covid, there was just no way to know how important our festivals were, but what we’re seeing now is even without these festivals, we’re actually surviving with locals or people passing through buying.”

According to the tourism board’s occupancy analytics, bookings are up by 4.8 percent, although owner occupancy plays a large role. “The shift of second homeowners coming more often and staying for longer was a consistent trend throughout the summer,” Telluride News reported, which likely fed into the local economy.

Telluride, with its mountainous views and small-town appeal, has historically relied on external visitors and second homeowners who come for its many cultural festivals (it has hosted events on film, jazz, bluegrass, beer, and yoga) or the winter ski season. In short, tourism is a year-round business, except for a few weeks in the spring during the off-season.

“From the looks of it, it does seem like Telluride beat the odds, and we did that too back in 2008 during the financial crisis,” said Kristin Holbrook, co-owner of the Two Skirts boutique. “A lot of people are just passing through since our lodging is capped at 50 percent. It looks like houses owned by people who used to live here part-time are being filled up too, and they’re all buying stuff.”

For the hospitality industry, though, the financial stakes are still dire, even though Telluride as a whole appears more crowded. Hotels and other lodging units are still only at 50 percent capacity, and the county expects to cap this amount since demand might decrease through the fall.

Chesonis believes that the bookstore’s current “steady state” is a result of many factors: Shorter business hours, a “skeleton crew” of workers, and consistent book-buying from guests. “We’re down 20 percent in sales, but we’ve been managing because we’re balancing less payroll,” she said. However, she’s unable to anticipate what the winter holds and beyond that, despite working at the bookstore for over a decade. “When we wake up and it’s winter, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The striking uncertainty that plagues Anaheim and Telluride, however, has largely escaped Sevierville, Tennessee, a town that’s within a day’s driving distance of multiple states and boasts a range of attractions, from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Dollywood theme park. (It also ranks first on Caskie’s tourism economic development index.) Although Sevier County has recorded more than 2,000 Covid-19 cases, Sevierville has seen a roughly 23 percent increase in bookings compared to 2019, which translates to an average of 60 additional guests a night, Bloomberg reported.

However, there was a moment in mid-March when Jessica Hale, co-owner of Ridge Outdoor Resorts in Sevierville, felt strikingly uncertain about the town’s outlook. She knew that people were going to travel again — eventually — but Sevierville’s unemployment numbers were rapidly spiking. The situation appeared to be nearly as bad as the Gatlinburg wildfires in 2016, which devastated the local economy and caused about $500 million in damages.

“We’re totally dependent on tourists,” Hale told me. The region is typically filled with tourists starting from spring break season in April through New Years’, but this year, the pandemic arrived on the cusp of spring.

By May, it seemed like Sevierville was on the road to recovery for some businesses. Most of what Hale’s resort offers — RV campsites, luxury tent camping, and tiny cabins — are naturally socially distanced activities, which led her visitor numbers to “grow tremendously.” It helps that the county is car-accessible. Hale commonly hosts guests from Carolinas, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, but recently, she’s noticed travelers from Washington and even California.

“I’m booked all the way through November at this point, but of course, everything feels different,” she said. With so many tourists arriving and leaving town every week, an outbreak could prove disastrous, but according to Hale, “we can’t eat if we close down.” A minority of locals are worried about the influx of travelers, but tourism is “what feeds Sevierville,” she said.

Most small business owners in the region — who’ve inherited family shops or are long-term residents — feel grateful for the hand the town has been dealt. “It’s almost eerily normal if you looked at the town in terms of visitor rates and number of operating hotels and businesses,” said Bill Lucey, the 20-year owner of Rainforest Adventures and Discovery Zoo. “If anything, there’s a significant number of ‘help wanted’ signs, since we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the number of tourists coming back.”

Lucey kept using the phrase “consistently decent” to describe the bump in tourism that Sevierville has experienced. Local businesses weren’t sure what to expect when tourists started flooding back in, and the pandemic has been uncharted territory. But for every “recovering” town like Sevierville and Telluride, there are still many factors at stake — namely how the US will handle the coronavirus leading into 2021. So far, the federal government’s haphazard management of the crisis in 2020 does not inspire much confidence.

“We can’t predict the future,” said Wildey of The Ranch Restaurant in Anaheim. “A lot of us are hoping we’ll be able to resume regular operations sooner, but we also have to listen to the guidance of experts and the governor to bring the infection numbers down.”

It’s a precarious time for businesses, even if revenue is currently up or holding steady. “I can’t even think ahead to next summer,” Chesonis, the bookstore owner in Telluride, told me. “When Covid just hit, we were thinking hourly. Then it got to weekly and now monthly. But I can’t think that far ahead right now. I mean, how can we?”


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Thailand shuts down online TV channel, as protests continue

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Thai protesters raised three-finger salutes to the national anthem at public places across Bangkok on Tuesday as anti-government rallies continued and the government ordered an online TV channel to close over its coverage of the demonstrations.

The authorities imposed emergency measures banning gatherings of more than four people last Thursday amid growing protests against the government and monarchy.

But protests have only grown despite a crackdown in which dozens have been detained.

Two protest leaders – Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul – were arrested on Tuesday on new charges as soon as a court freed them bail in relation to a previous set of charges.

“This is not a leaderless protest, but everybody is a leader,” Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree told reporters at the Siam Paragon mall, where dozens of people gave the salute borrowed from The Hunger Games.

“It’s not anarchy. Everybody has judgement and will do what is reasonable,” said Ford, who has already been arrested twice since the protests began.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s cabinet agreed to an emergency session of parliament next week because of the crisis, but he has said he will not quit – as the protesters have demanded. Prayuth’s supporters have a majority in parliament.

Protesters also want changes to the constitution and a reduction in the powers of the monarchy under King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The emergency measures only appear to have stoked public anger, but Tuesday turned out to be the quietest day on the streets since the decree was imposed with only a few hundred gathering.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said they would be filing a suit with six students and other human rights groups on Wednesday to revoke the declaration and seek an injunction to prevent government crackdowns.

Voice TV silenced

Earlier, a court ordered the suspension of Voice TV, an online broadcaster critical of the government.

Voice TV had been found to have breached the Computer Crime Act by uploading “false information,” digital ministry spokesman Putchapong Nodthaisong said.

Editor-in-Chief of Voice TV Rittikorn Mahakhachabhorn said it would continue broadcasting until the court order arrived.

“We insist that we have been operating based on journalistic principles and we will continue our work presently,” he said.

Voice TV was one of four media organisations under investigation for their coverage of the continuing protest movement. Many have been reporting the protests live on Facebook and other social media platforms.

The channel is part-owned by the Shinawatra family of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who was overthrown by Prayuth in a 2014 coup. Both fled Thailand to escape corruption cases they branded political.

The demonstrations have been largely led by students and young people in contrast with 10 years of street violence between supporters of Thaksin and conservative royalists before Prayuth seized power.

The prime minister on Tuesday accused media outlets of spreading false news.

“Media freedom is important but in some cases there are some media outlets disseminating distorted information that is inciting unrest,” he said after a court order following a complaint from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.

The court ruling comes a day after the same ministry said it had flagged more than 325,000 messages on social media platforms that violated the Computer Crimes Act, which critics say is used to muzzle dissent.

Amnesty International accused the authorities of “scare tactics” by ordering the closure of Voice TV.

“The harassment of media outlets is just one facet of the Thai authorities current assault on communications channels, alongside threats to block the messaging platform Telegram and use of the Computer Crimes Act, among other laws, against people for what they post and share online,” Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns Ming Yu Hah said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said the closure of Voice TV was a misuse of the emergency decree and noted that the channel had been a target of censorship more than any other TV station in the country.

“The crackdown is part of a bigger effort to bully and control the media into becoming a government mouthpiece,” the group’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, said in a statement.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand expressed deep concern that the Royal Thai Police was investigating Voice TV, along with online media outlets Prachatai, The Reporters and The Standard.

“A free media is an essential element in any democratic society and bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threats of bans, suspensions, censorships or prosecution hanging over them,” the club said.

The court has yet to announce its decision on the other three media organisations.

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US says nearly 300,000 excess deaths in 2020 as COVID-19 rages

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CDC analysis shows excess deaths were highest among Hispanic and Black people, and those aged between 25 and 44.

Nearly 300,000 more people have died in the United States during this year’s coronavirus pandemic than would be expected during a typical year, with at least two-thirds thought to be caused by COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a report released on Tuesday.

The CDC said 299,028 more people died between January 26 and October 3 than the average numbers from the previous four years (2015 – 2019) would have indicated.

That compares with about 216,000 COVID-19 deaths reported by October 15.

“This might underestimate the total impact of the pandemic on mortality,” it said.

The report found excess deaths have occurred in the US every week since March 2020 reaching a peak in the weeks ended April 11 and August 8. Excess deaths are defined as the number of people who have died from all causes, in excess of the expected number of deaths for a given place and time.

In some countries, operations have been deferred and access to treatment for other illnesses has become more difficult as hospitals have struggled to cope with the burden of treating those with COVID-19. Fear of contracting the disease has also made some people wary of seeking treatment.

“Estimates of excess deaths attributed to COVID-19 might underestimate the actual number directly attributable to COVID-19 because deaths from other causes might represent misclassified COVID-19 related deaths or deaths indirectly caused by the pandemic,” the report noted.

“Specifically, deaths from circulatory diseases, Alzheimer disease and dementia, and respiratory diseases have increased in 2020 relative to past years, and it is unclear to what extent these represent misclassified COVID-19 deaths or deaths indirectly related to the pandemic (because of disruptions in health care access or utilization).”

More younger deaths

The US is battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, which has pushed the number of daily cases to levels not seen since July, at a time when the weather is getting colder and people are spending more time indoors.

The CDC data shows disproportionate increases in excess deaths among Hispanic and Black people – groups who are more likely to develop severe complications from COVID-19.

The largest average percentage increase in deaths occurred among Hispanic people (53.6 percent), with deaths 32.9 percent above average among Black people and 36.6 percent above average for Asians. For white people, deaths were 11.9 percent higher.

The CDC said the largest percentage increase in excess deaths from all causes was among adults aged 25–44 years: 26.5 percent.

“The age distribution of COVID-19 deaths shifted towards younger age groups from May through August,” the report noted, but said more studies were needed to assess the extent to which the increase in deaths was driven by the coronavirus or other causes.

The US has reported 220,921 deaths from COVID-19, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

The country’s confirmed caseload and death toll are the highest in the world and the government’s handling of the pandemic has become a key issue in the presidential elections that take place on November 3.

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Human remains found in Tulsa could be victims of racist massacre

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At least one set of human remains, possibly two, found as search for victims of the 1921 racial massacre continues.

One set of human remains, and perhaps a second, have been found in a Tulsa cemetery where investigators are searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said on Tuesday.

“We do have one confirmed individual and the possibility of a second” body found, Stackelbeck said. “We are still in the process of analysing those remains to the best of our ability … We don’t have a whole lot of details,” Stackelbeck said.

The confirmed human remains were found little more than 90 centimetres (three feet) underground in an area known as the “Original 18”, where funeral home records show massacre victims are buried.

It is not yet known if the remains, which were found in a wooden coffin, are of a victim of the massacre, Stackelbeck said.

“We are still analysing what has come out of the ground at this point in time and so no, unfortunately, we have not been able to assess the trauma at this point in time, or potential trauma,” that would indicate the person was among the massacre victims.

A group of National Guard Troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African American men to the detention centre at Convention Hall, after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921 [Oklahoma Historical Society via Getty Images]

After an examination of the remains, they will be returned to the coffin and reburied, Stackelbeck said.

Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum, who first proposed looking for victims of the violence in 2018 and later budgeted $100,000 to fund it after previous searches failed to find victims, has said efforts will be made to find any descendants of the victims who are identified.

Oaklawn Cemetery in north Tulsa, where a search for remains of victims ended without success in July and where the excavation resumed on Monday, is near the Greenwood District where the massacre took place.

The violence took place on May 31 and June 1 in 1921, when a white mob attacked Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, killing an estimated 300, mostly Black, people and wounding 800 more while robbing and burning businesses, homes and churches.

The massacre – which happened two years after what is known as the “Red Summer”, when hundreds of African Americans died at the hands of white mobs in violence around the US – has been depicted in recent HBO shows, Watchmen, and, Lovecraft County.

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