Falling in Love with U.S. Landscapes Again

Olympic National Park

Mark Windom

As the nation buckles down to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19, that means re-evaluating everything from a trip to the grocery store to flights both short and long. Specifically, it’s forced a whiplash-style halt on international travel. Dreams of languorously spreading out on the Champ de Mars while sipping champagne have been put on hold, bubbling anticipation over weeks-long treks through dazzling Southeast Asia has been nipped, and even a quick zip to Canada or Mexico have been pointedly extinguished.

A Newfound Appreciation

It's all for the best, of course. And, as painful as it is to cancel plans and push them off indefinitely, in the scheme of things, it's small potatoes. Amid the disappointment, however, something interesting has happened: U.S. citizens are experiencing a newfound appreciation for those purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.

Families, couples, and even small "quarantine crews" have set their sights on hyper-local, ultra-scenic destinations they can more safely explore now, or in late 2020 and into 2021. Places that have been in their backyard or just beyond but have gotten an inadvertent cold shoulder in favor of sexy international locales like Portugal, Morocco, Indonesia, and South Africa.

Take Erin Whitaker—a high school English teacher based in Gilbert, Arizona—for example. She and two friends had incredible international plans for 2020, but when their respective visions of Thailand and Iceland fell through, they decided to plan a "coronacation."

"Other than a couple of short trips to Vegas and time in California, I've never seen much of the western part of the U.S. The idea of taking in national parks and seeing the beauty of our country was very appealing and had been something I'd wanted to do for a long time," she says. "We started our journey by renting a minivan and driving from Phoenix to Zion National Park in Utah. After that, we headed to Bryce Canyon, Salt Lake City, Twin Falls, Idaho, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Denver, and Arches National Park in Moab."

In total, their crew (which grew to five by the end) hit eight states and drove nearly 4,000 miles. Whitaker says it was one of the most amazing trips she's ever taken.

Matt Kirouac and his husband, Brad, have similar feelings about gorgeous views the U.S. has to offer. They'd already been living the RV life for the last 18 months but had set their sights on international land this year. It was a small pivot to stay in the U.S., but that pivot still had an impact.

"Over the past year and a half in our RV, we've come to really appreciate the diverse beauty and cultural landscape of the U.S., for sure. The pandemic has only magnified it," says Kirouac. The pandemic also forced them to slow down and park more often to minimize their impact on communities and businesses. "Being 'forced' to slow down and sit still for the first time in a long time, I was mesmerized by my surroundings. It's crazy that it took something so surreal as a pandemic to shift our priorities, highlight the beauty in our on-the-road backyard, and start mapping out the rest of our lives."

Lauren Udoh, who's based in Texas, has yet to hit the U.S. highways out of caution but says she's been brewing some incredible plans. "Taking a cross-country road trip and renting an RV for a summer vacation down Route 66 is a must on my bucket list," Udoh says. "Returning to California to visit parts that I missed on a prior trip is something that I am looking forward to, as well.

A Look at the Numbers

Whitaker, Kirouac, and Udoh aren’t alone in this desire to explore nearby locales and ignite a newfound appreciation for the USA. VRBO tells TripSavvy that they’ve seen a 15 percent jump in demand for vacation homes within a 500-mile radius of their own home. Interestingly, a whopping 95 percent of that demand is for non-urban destinations, including lakes, beaches, and mountain getaways, presumably a direct result of wanting to spread out and stay distanced through the pandemic.

Dynamite Travel, which specializes in luxury travel packages, has experienced a boost, as well.

“While some customers have been bummed about not being able to travel internationally right now, we have seen an extreme uptick and excitement in the opportunity to explore hidden gems in the U.S., and overall happiness to have some form of travel and vacation experience right now,” says Dr. Terika Haynes, the company's founder. “[We’re] doing strenuous research on various airlines, hotel brands, as well as private and boutique properties to see who has the best policies and requirements to keep our clients safe.”

It’s not just nearby getaway homes that are booking now and through the latter half of 2020. Kampgrounds of America (KOA), which has 500 locations across the United States, is feeling the love, too. In the thick of stay-at-home orders, they experienced a 43 percent decrease in short-term leisurely bookings compared to last year, but as of July 2020, they’re only down 14.4 percent when comparing this time to last year.

“Business has indeed come back significantly,” says Toby O’Rourke, KOA’s president and CEO. “Our advanced reservations for the rest of the year are only down 5.8 percent to last year, and we expect that upward trend to continue as the summer goes on. Short-term occupancy continues to improve every week. In fact, our occupancy during the recent Father’s Day weekend nearly matched Father’s Day weekend last year.”

O’Rourke adds that KOA was quick to implement new CDC-driven safety measures so that their campgrounds could become safe havens for both long and short-term campers.

“The current experience on KOA campgrounds may look and feel a bit different—temporarily—in the weeks ahead, but at the end of the day, it’s still camping,” O’Rourke tells us. “You can still gather around your campfire with your family, share stories, play games, take hikes, go fishing, or do any of the other things we love to do in the outdoors.”

Further, the RV Industry Association (RVIA) reported that June was on track to set a new record in factory shipments to RV dealers, and their research shows that nearly 30 percent of campers said they are more likely to purchase a new RV due to the pandemic. The RV rental market is booming, too. Cruise America says they’ve experienced a notable surge in demand for rentals since early May. Peer-to-peer networks, such as Outdoorsy and RVShare, have reported up to 650 percent increases in bookings since early April.

Traveling Safely in the U.S.

Anything we do—whether it’s walking in the neighborhood, picking up medicine at the pharmacy, or renting an RV and chugging along U.S. highways—comes with risk. Keep in mind that navigating this new world requires more homework than usual to ensure you’re minimizing risks for yourself and others. Stay safe, follow CDC guidelines, make amazing memories, and take some great pictures.