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The pandemic is hurting tourism | COMMENTARY

Keiver Jack Jordan, 9, was eye to eye with one of the 20,000 animals on display at the National Aquarium, a popular tourist attraction, as members got a chance to get inside the facility before it reopened to the public earlier this summer. Tourism has taken a hit because of the pandemic.
Keiver Jack Jordan, 9, was eye to eye with one of the 20,000 animals on display at the National Aquarium, a popular tourist attraction, as members got a chance to get inside the facility before it reopened to the public earlier this summer. Tourism has taken a hit because of the pandemic. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

With each passing day it becomes more and more difficult to find words that do justice to this year. Unprecedented. Challenging. Heartbreaking. But perhaps 2020 can be best summed up with just one word: loss. Loss of income. Loss of jobs. Loss of revenue. And most tragic of all, the unimaginable loss of life. More than 200,000 of our friends, family and loved ones.

While all of us have suffered because of COVID-19, the virus and resulting shutdowns have had a particularly damaging impact on the country’s tourism and hospitality industry. In normal times, this industry represents a bright spot in the U.S. economy, generating billions of dollars worth of visitor spending and tax revenue, and supporting millions of workers. According to the U.S. Travel Association, tourism is the nation’s second-largest export, and in Maryland alone, tourism and hospitality account for over 150,000 jobs.

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But recent data paint a bleak picture. Experts predict a total economic loss of $1.2 trillion in the tourism and travel industry in 2020. That’s far greater than the impact of 9/11. Unemployment in this sector is estimated to be hovering right around 50%. During the darkest days of the Great Depression, nationwide unemployment peaked at about 25%. This truly staggering statistic means that roughly 75,000 Marylanders working tourism jobs have found themselves laid off or furloughed for seven long months with no end in sight. Additionally, nearly 95% of our state’s tourism businesses are small businesses.

Some have seen their revenue vanish entirely, and since many are seasonal businesses, they now face the overwhelming prospect of a long and uncertain winter. State and federal assistance in the form of grants and loans, as well as unemployment benefits, have provided a critical lifeline, but those sources of aid are beginning to run dry. And now, even as the infection rate and death toll continue to climb, hotels, restaurants, shops, museums, and attractions are finding themselves forced to choose between reopening before it’s responsible to do so, risking the health of employees and customers alike, or remaining closed at the risk of never reopening. It’s an impossible decision that no business owner should ever have to make.

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Even once the virus is under control, we can’t expect a full economic recovery without the tourism and hospitality industry, and there won’t be a tourism and hospitality industry if our small businesses are unable to survive. Our leaders are not without options, however. There are several pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill that would help support the industry until it’s safe to begin operating responsibly again. First, Congress must immediately extend and expand the Paycheck Protection Program to include destination marketing organizations and allow for a second draw on these funds.

Congress must also pass the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act. This bipartisan bill has more co-sponsors than any other relief bill currently being considered by Congress and would provide $10 billion in emergency relief funding to motor coach operators, school bus companies and U.S. flag passenger vessel operators. The motor coach industry plays an invaluable role not just in the tourism and travel industry, but also in servicing the nation’s transportation needs, and many of these operators are now teetering on the cusp of collapse.

Here in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan should support Comptroller Peter Franchot’s proposal to provide direct aid to Maryland small businesses using money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. If this crisis doesn’t constitute a “rainy day,” it’s impossible to imagine what would. This assistance will help businesses cover payroll and expenses, at least through the winter. As we continue to endure month after month of quarantine and time apart from one another, we anxiously look forward to gathering again and doing the things we once took for granted: eating in restaurants, visiting museums, exploring our neighborhoods and enjoying live entertainment.

The tourism and hospitality industry will lead the way in helping us reconnect and create new treasured memories. But in a year filled with loss, unless our leaders take significant action now, we risk still another heartbreaking loss; the loss of hope. That’s a loss none of us can afford.

Chris Riehl (chris@rentatour.com) is president of the Baltimore Tourism Association.

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