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‘Very optimistic:’ How COVID-19 changed Idaho tourism and what’s next for Boise, McCall, Sun Valley & beyond

Summer is just around the corner. After a long year or so during the COVID-19 pandemic, Idahoans and people across the region are dreaming of a vacation… and Idaho’s lakes, campgrounds, and restaurants look like prime destinations. The pandemic had a big impact on how and where people traveled – with concern about the future of tourism.

While Idaho tourism stayed stronger than many feared, traditional tourism patterns shifted. More people are heading out to rural areas and staying for extended periods – along with more car travel to close-by cities and outdoor recreation.

However, this shift in tourism looked different in rural and urban areas of the state. 

[Southwest to add new flights from Boise to Orange Co. & Dallas]

“(There was a) different blend of health concerns and different local ordinances or sort of limitations,” Matt Borud, Marketing and Innovation Administrator for the Idaho Department of Commerce said. “But I think that all in all, everybody’s come out of this in a pretty good position.”

Tourism in Idaho is a $3.7 billion business, and employs more than 45,000 people according to the US Travel Association. It’s one of Idaho’s largest industries.

With vaccines distributed to a little over 35% of Idahoans, some feel a sense of optimism and are ready to travel. But what happened with tourism last year? And what does the future hold? 

Tourism in Boise

Downtown Boise hosts the Boise Centre and numerous hotels. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

As the capital of Idaho, Boise is a hub for big group business and corporate events throughout the year. But In 2020 the city remained quiet.

According to Boise CVB Executive Director, Carrie Westergard group business dropped 77%.

“The positive coming out of this is that maybe some first-time leisure travelers were introduced to our area,” she said. “And if we can maintain any of that and then continue to bring back the group business which looks like it’s definitely strong in August, September, October, November. We’re seeing really positive numbers. And actually even this month we’re starting to see some larger groups coming back to in-person meetings.” 

Though Boise is not a rural city, it is a smaller “big” city that had a population of 226,115 in 2019. Because of this, Boise has seen the tourism industry grow back faster than several other big cities across the United States.

“If we look at (national tourism economics) the country as a whole and a lot of these cities that are much bigger cities then Boise were impacted a lot harder than Boise was,” Westergard said. “They’re even showing those cities like New York, Los Angeles, Vegas… to reach 82% of the 2019 group business (numbers) by 2022. So if you look at our size city which is more attractive to some people because it’s smaller, it’s safer, it’s easier to access, especially with the new air service that’s been added from all over, we’ll see those I think even before 2022.”

After a tough 2020, the Greater Boise Auditorium District, which operates Boise Centre, said the convention business in Boise in the back half the year will be jumping.

“From August through the end of November, barring any craziness we don’t have any room left,” GBAD Executive Director Pat Rice said. “We have very limited opportunities for space here from August through September.”

He said hotel room reservations in Boise started to increase this spring – and growth could be ahead.

“I think 2022 is going to be a record year,” he said. “There is so much pent-up demand. The last half of 2021 is great, rolling into 2022.”

McCall: Strong 2020… stronger 2021?

Boats on the lake in McCall, Idaho. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

In more rural destinations like McCall, tourism and hospitality did not face many setbacks, as the city had one of its best years on record it. 

“I think that anecdotally we saw (that the) town was really busy,” McKenzie Kraemer of the McCall Area Chamber said. “And I don’t think (it’s) 100% isolated to McCall. I think a lot of mountain outdoor recreation areas, saw the same thing.”

McCall has two different local option taxes, or LOT, that are required for people doing business within McCall. The street LOT is a one percent tax on retail sales. This does not include motor vehicles or groceries. The city also levies an additional three percent tax on lodging. The LOT numbers help paint a picture of what tourism has looked like for the mountain town throughout the pandemic. 

[How busy was McCall this summer? Tax data shows boom, despite pandemic]

And the LOT receipts show that this year boded well for McCall. 

“In 2020 we’re actually up in our lodging tax collections by just under 6%,” she said. “So, that’s the biggest year we’ve ever had on record since we started keeping records.”

As reported here in BoiseDev, the McCall Winter Carnival was canceled and many officials believed that the economy would survive – but it ended up doing more than that, it thrived.

Even without the signature event, business increased.

“So before we knew that (the pandemic) was coming, we had Winter Carnival in 2020,” Kraemer said. “And then this last year in 2021 we’re sort of coming out of everything we did not have Winter Carnival and so from 2020 (to) 2021 the difference in our lodging tax collections we were actually up 33.9% this year having canceled Winter Carnival.”

The numbers & what’s next for McCall

More factors helped increase tourism in the rural town, like extended hotel and cabin stays and the endless amount of outdoor activities McCall offers. Kraemer says people staying three-plus nights in McCall increased by 10% last year. And she doesn’t think the increase in tourists will plateau anytime soon. 

“We saw a lot of people come to recreate outdoors,” she said. “You know snowmobilers just looking at their demographic if we look at the traffic from the trailhead that we manage It was significantly higher than the year before. I mean, I think it was such an anomaly year… but I think in general I don’t imagine we’re going to see a huge dip in visitation anywhere. I think we’ll probably continue to see an upward trend, I just am not 100% sure if it will be such a significant spike.”

Though the numbers point to a successful year Kraemer says there is a “human element” that is forgotten about. 

“It’s not quite all sunshine and roses,” she said. “It’s great that our numbers were up, but there was so much blood, sweat, and that tears went into it. “The innovation and just the sheer grit of businesses to stay open to accommodate the people coming into our community is pretty overwhelming.”

Kraemer said the numbers tend to hide the impact.

“Like yeah, we were up 6% and that was a really hard 6% to get to. So you think there’s kind of human element that gets lost in those numbers. It’s easy to gloss over those numbers but… it was a test here, (it was) a very tough year for a lot of people.”

Blaine County (Ketchum & Sun Valley)

Ketchum’s tourism trends were similar to McCall’s. Outdoor recreation boomed while other areas like liquor sales plummeted.

Ketchum, which also has a LOT, saw an increase.

For example, the total LOT receipts increased by $262,299.90 in the 2020-21 fiscal year from the 2019-20 fiscal year. And interestingly enough Visit Sun Valley’s Marketing Director Ray Gadd says that retail had solid numbers partially due to people spending money on outdoor gear. 

Though Sun Valley felt the effects of less group business last year, tourism is already looking better for the city ahead of this summer.

[Data shows shifts in Ketchum economy this year in wake of pandemic]

“So as we look towards the summer group business is slowly coming back on a much smaller scale, so that will help to fill in some of those gaps,” Gadd said. “And we also have the vast majority of our signature events that happen yearly basis coming through with some sort of in-person activity, so that’ll be a huge draw for us as the summer. It is pretty robust traditionally with those events. I think that will help to keep people in town more versus getting out to sort of isolate in the woods.”

Ketchum welcomed many non-traditional tourists. People who lived in states and cities close enough to drive and people who drove down to work remotely and stayed for extended periods of time. 

“We just have so much to offer here,” he said “We saw a lot of folks driving through to get out to the various campgrounds around here, a lot of usage on the trails. We also saw a significant number of second homeowners coming to use their places because they could kind of escape their lockdown city dwellings and just kind of hunker down here versus being cooped up they could still access the outdoors not just be confined in the city limits of some of those major metropolitan areas.”

Looking ahead to the summer

Tourism is a vital part of Idaho’s economy — last year we told you people traveling in the state spent $3.7 billion in 2017. However, even now when COIVD mandates begin to lift, officials from around the state are feeling hopeful going into the summer. 

Last July, Borud says Idaho officials thought that the state would be down 28% in tourism and hospitality revenue.

“We were kind of hoping for maybe low 20s. But it looks like from our collections from our data that we’re going to be flat, if not slightly up a little bit,” he said about tourism revenue. “So, we’ve had a really strong late winter, early spring numbers right now from a state perspective we’re back to 2019-type numbers.”

Borud said officials wondered when they’d get back to the 2019 numbers.

“And you know the answer is we’re already there.”

Borud cautioned that levels of activity will vary from region to region. Though last year’s numbers are encouraging looking ahead. 

“Obviously it’s been challenging,” he said. “But the way this industry has rebounded and the strength that our businesses and our communities have shown their resiliency, and actually to kind of turn what was what we were all afraid was going to be a really disastrous year into actually a very very good year is pretty remarkable. So we’re very optimistic heading into this year and I hope everybody stays safe and can stay healthy and enjoy the outdoors.”

Disclosure: Greater Boise Auditorium District is a BoiseDev sponsor, with placement coming through a third-party agency. GBAD had no role in the production or selection of this story

Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson is a BoiseDev reporter focused on Meridian and McCall. Contact her at [email protected].

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