How the U.S. Tourism Industry Is Staying Afloat—or Sinking—During COVID-19

Many businesses reliant on tourism dollars are struggling to make ends meet

Long Island Distillery Manufactures Hand Santizer Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Al Bello / Getty Images

When the coronavirus pandemic halted the world, the travel industry essentially shut down overnight, leaving airlines, hotels, and a range of businesses that survive on tourism without any customers. On top of dealing with a lack of tourists, government-ordered lockdowns and strict social distancing guidelines have prevented businesses from opening to locals, too. While some tourism-based industries have been well-suited to pivoting their businesses to keep cash flowing, others have hit a hard wall.

The Art of the Quick Pivot

Some tourism-driven industries were able to stop on a dime and move in a new direction to keep their coffers full. While popular with locals, breweries, wineries, and distilleries are often big tourism draws, especially the tasting rooms. But those tasting rooms had to close early into the pandemic.

“Basically as soon as we realized things were changing in mid-March and we'd be forced to shut down our taprooms for on-site drinking, we started to pivot and get creative. We had an online delivery store setup in 24 hours!” says Aften Lee, brand and retail director of Smog City Brewing Co. in Torrance, California. “We could feel the seriousness behind what was happening and knew we had to think quickly to adjust the way we were doing business but had no idea the changes would last this long.”

Like many breweries, wineries, and distilleries, Smog City Brewing Co. has been fortunate to be able to offer online sales and pick-up orders. In fact, the alcohol industry at large has seen a surge in sales for at-home imbibing throughout the pandemic as consumers trapped in lockdown keep their bar carts stocked.

Distilleries, on the other hand, found another pivot: they were in the unique position to use their facilities to create hand sanitizer, which was crucial in the early months of the pandemic when there were severe shortages. Backwards Distilling Company in Casper, Wyoming, first produced hand sanitizer for first responders and medical professionals, then expanded sales to the general public. Per the Casper Star-Tribune, the pivot to hand sanitizer sales has been key in keeping the distillery going.

While tasting rooms largely remain closed, some businesses have revamped tastings to provide a safe experience that stays within social distancing guidelines. Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Hammondsport, New York created a tasting program that rotates visitors through a series of routinely sanitized stations. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Brandon Thomas, the winery’s digital brand manager. “We send out a feedback survey at the end of each person's tasting: 100 percent of people have said they have felt safe visiting our winery. The new Progressive Tasting Experience has been such a hit, we are working on plans to keep the experience even after this pandemic.”

Food tour operators like Teresa Nemetz of Milwaukee Food & City Tours were hit on two fronts: a lack of tourists and the closure of restaurants. But Nemetz found a quick solution by creating Quarantine Care Kits, packages of goods sourced from the local businesses her company frequented. “Despite the temporary collapse of the travel industry, it has been an incredible experience to know that we are able to not only financially support these businesses, but also our employees and their families,” says Nemetz. “Within three months of the launch of care package distribution, we have infused $120,000 back to small businesses as a direct result of orders placed online. We anticipate that we will continue to sell these products even beyond the pandemic.”

There’s also been some success in pivoting to virtual experiences. In the case of live music, in-person performances are no longer happening, but live-streamed concerts are. “I was playing two to four times a week from jazz clubs, restaurants and bars, to public and private events,” says trumpet player Mark Rapp, based in Columbia, South Carolina. “Without live shows, it’s like having an amazing yacht with no water.” Rapp has since used his music-based nonprofit ColaJazz to provide virtual performance opportunities for out-of-work musicians. “Immediately, we shifted to producing online content including live-streaming concerts. We have to bring the music to where it can be accessible and create opportunities for musicians to work,” says Rapp. “If we can’t gather in person, we’ll gather in the matrix.”

When Pivots Aren’t Possible

Not all tourism-derived industries have been able to keep their businesses afloat through pivots, however. Take Broadway, the famed theaters in New York City have been dark since March 12, 2020, and they’ll remain so until at least Jan. 3, 2021.

While some have suggested selling tickets for live streams of performances—a method attempted by the play "Lungs" on London’s West End—there’s simply no way to make the finances work. Most Broadway productions—and the theaters themselves—operate on incredibly thin margins, and the cost of putting on one show would be vastly greater than any revenue from virtual ticket sales. The only type of theater performance that potentially could break even with a limited audience would be low-budget plays like one-person shows.

The same can't be said for productions at outdoor venues where social distancing is possible. For the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice in Kingston, New York, organizers transformed what was supposed to be a three-day festival into a one-night performance and created the world’s first drive-in opera. Up to 600 cars will be able to partake in the socially distanced staging of Puccini's "Tosca."

Museums are facing similar financial problems. Beyond donations from corporations and wealthy patrons, most museums rely on ticket sales to maintain their operating budget. With no visitors, there’s simply no money coming in. A survey released last week by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) suggests that up to one-third of all museums in the country will close permanently as a result of the pandemic. While most institutions have remained closed throughout the pandemic thus far, there’s a bit of hope on the horizon. Some, like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, have re-opened with capacity limitations. But it’s still an uphill battle. “Even with a partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenue, and there is no financial safety net for many museums,” Laura Lott, president and CEO of the AAM, said in a statement.

Beyond offering virtual experiences—like tours, interviews, and behind-the-scenes videos—to keep the public engaged, there’s not much cultural organizations can do beyond battening down the hatches and hoping they can weather the storm.

How You Can Help

Other than visiting venues that have reopened in some capacity as lockdown measures are rolled back, you can consider purchasing any products sold online, making a donation, buying a gift voucher, or even setting up your own fundraisers to help businesses in need.