Lone star wanderlust

Counties see travel bounce back as tourists take respite from pandemic

By Tonyia Cone

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Travel is big business in Texas, and the industry did not escape the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide direct travel spending — $83 billion in 2019, according to Travel Texas, the Office of the Governor’s economic development and tourism arm — took a 32% hit in 2020. Such spending translates into critical revenue for statewide and local coffers in the form of sales and occupancy taxes, among others. Counties throughout the state felt the shift, with the impact varying based on the type of attraction.

Real County Judge Bella Rubio estimates that up to 80% of her local economy is driven by spring break and summer travel to the Frio River, Nueces Canyon and three large summer camps.

“Our rivers are like liquid gold for Real County,” Rubio said.

In 2020, travelers spent $10.3 million in Real County, about 100 miles west of Bexar County, a 34% increase compared with the year before, according to Travel Texas. Rubio said the figures reflect an increase of those who fled cities to work virtually from second homes in Real County and those who commuted from contiguous counties to buy necessities from local stores.

But when many people chose to stay home rather than travel in 2020, demand sharply declined for restaurants, river outfitters, recreational services and lodging, putting many Real County residents out of work.

“It was very challenging,” Rubio said. “It was a very sad time. But I’m very blessed and honored that everybody tried their best to pull together and do what they could.”

Conventions canceled

In Central Texas’ Bell County, many events scheduled at its Expo Center and convention centers in Temple and Killeen were canceled. The Expo Center’s gross revenue decreased 41% in 2020, Bell County Judge David Blackburn said. Combined with decreased retail shopping and water sport and fishing tourism, direct travel spending in Bell County fell 16% from 2019, to $450.3 million in 2020.

When indoor events were canceled, North Texas’ Hood County’s Lake Granbury Conference Center also lost significant business, said Tammy Dooley, director of the Granbury Convention and Visitors Bureau. But the historic community minimized the loss of travel by shifting its focus to other tourist attractions and promoting #granburylove, an advertising and educational campaign. Direct travel spending in Hood County dropped 12% in 2020 to $60.9 million.

“Revenues were reduced but not as dramatically as in other areas of the state. Sales tax remained strong and hotel occupancy taxes (HOT) declined only 22% over the previous year,” said Hood County Judge Ron Massingill. “Our geographic location, access to outdoor recreational tourism and Lake Granbury actually drew many visitors.”

Too much of a good thing

Other counties struggled with an influx of visitors. Brazoria County’s beaches drew many quarantine-weary visitors from nearby Houston.

“We saw our beaches even more crowded than pre-pandemic,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta.

Direct travel spending in the county dropped 13% in 2020 to $339.8 million, but Brazoria County’s 2020 sales tax numbers were higher than previous years, driven by local residents’ spending. County officials also have budgeted conservatively in preparation for tough times.

The biggest challenge was getting people to heed safety advisories.

Brewster County leaders struggled to balance their travel-based economy with safety. Concerned that there might not be adequate medical resources for an outbreak, the county ordered emergency hotel closures.

With travelers drawn to the area by Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, the county brought in $76.7 million in direct travel spending in 2020, down 11% from 2019, and some business owners did not take the temporary closure lightly. The owner of a hotel in Marathon filed a lawsuit against Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano and other county officials.

Since the governor relaxed mandates and the county reopened, tourism — along with COVID-19 cases — has surged in the county.

“I’m still taking fallout from business owners,” Cano told County magazine in July 2021. “But I would do the same thing again.”

Innovation kept communities strong

In addition to making use of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) assistance, community members supported one another to make it through the difficult year. Most counties depended on the buffer they keep on hand to sustain services, such as law enforcement, payroll and road maintenance, usually paid from a general fund.

In Bell County, sales tax revenue, the source of about a third of the county’s general fund, increased in 2020, because homebound residents spent their money online and locally on home improvement project supplies, Blackburn said. Sales taxes made up for a loss in hotel occupancy taxes as many of the county’s public safety costs increased.

Other counties focused on trimming expenses to compensate for lost revenue. Cano explained that Brewster County reduced its workforce by not filling vacancies created by attrition and retirement, by forgoing raises for county staff members and by budgeting conservatively for 2021.

On the rebound

After riding out the unpredictability of 2020, Texas counties are now happily seeing travel return.

In 2020, Fayette County direct travel spending decreased 23% to $40.2 million. Now, antique shows that draw vendors and tourists to northeast Fayette County, drivable from Austin, Houston and San Antonio, have seen triple the attendance over pre-pandemic numbers, District 2 Commissioner Luke Sternadel said.

Southeastern Fayette County’s painted church tours and church picnics that closed in 2020 are also drawing out-of-town visitors again, said Drew Brossmann, District 4 commissioner.

The first church picnic to reopen as usual was held the Fourth of July weekend. With 4,500 attendees, it was one of the largest the area has ever seen. With events such as the Schulenburg Festival and the Fayette County Fair returning to normal in late summer and fall, Brossmann expects tourism numbers to continue rising.

Rubio said this year's annual Fourth of July celebration in Leakey, July Jubilee, was Real County's first profitable weekend since the pandemic began and the biggest July Jubilee in at least 10 years. Additionally, tubing on the river has been busy thanks to conditions created by recent rain. After letting go of employees in 2020, businesses are struggling to find enough workers to keep up with this year's demand, Rubio said.

Many county officials said some pandemic practices are bound to stick around, including improved health and sanitary measures and conservative budgeting. 

But, counties dependent on travel are taking steps to lessen their vulnerability going forward. Cano said he plans to examine how Brewster County can diversify its economy.

“We can’t forget those lessons,” Cano said.