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Science and Innovations

Tourism During COVID-19, Part One: National and State Parks

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona tourism took a hard hit this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Significantly fewer people visited state and national parks compared to last year, and air travel and hotel reservations dropped off, as well. On the other hand, outdoor recreation is on the rise, with more hikers and campers flocking to forest lands in Northern Arizona looking for a safe way to recreate during the coronavirus pandemic. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Josh Coddington of the Arizona Office of Tourism about what he calls the “summer of the road trip.”

Tell me some of the ways summer tourism changed this year with the pandemic going on?

Really what we’ve been looking at during the summer is people getting in their car, going to places in Arizona maybe that they’ve been thinking about going or that they hadn’t been in a long time, and rediscovering those places…. We’re seeing people take road trips, we’re seeing people go camping, we’re seeing people get outdoors a lot more than really they ever have.

So let’s talk about some of those numbers, state park visitation to date has been about 10 percent lower than it was last year. National park visitation, it was cut in half during the month of June.

Yes… visitation is down at some of Arizona’s state parks. To me, though, just looking at the numbers doesn’t really tell the whole story… because a number of things impact where visitors are going, or whether they’re going out and visiting state parks, and which state parks they’re visiting. First among those being wildfires…that does impact visitation a bit not only at a particular park, but also the highways that go to those parks… Then of course just COVID-19 overall. Arizona had the spike of cases in June and July, and I would think that the spike in cases and with the governor’s safer at home order, that probably just encouraged people to stay at home more than they would otherwise would.

Have you seen any differences in patterns for domestic travelers, people in state moving around, verses national or international travelers?

Definitely. That’s a good point to bring up when you talk about national parks visitation, especially visitation to the Grand Canyon. Year over year visitation to the Grand Canyon is down, but one of the main reasons for that is because the Grand Canyon has a great mix of international visitors that make up a huge part of the 6 million visitors that visit on a yearly basis. Of course international leisure travel right now is basically nonexistent….We hope if things keep going in a good direction we can bring that back in a safe and responsible way.

Can you talk about the implications for our economy with the dip in travel over the summer, I’m wondering about hotels, shops, places like that?

The reduction in travel from COVID-19 has been nothing less than devastating for Arizona’s tourism industry and for the economy overall. Visitors in 2019 spent a record 25.6 billion dollars in Arizona…and also supported 194 thousand jobs in the tourism industry. When you take away 70 percent of that, which is about where we’re at, that’s of course devastating to the people employed in tourism, to tourism businesses… such as hotels and resorts… restaurants is another industry that is largely tied to tourism and that suffers when tourists are not here.

Josh Coddington, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you very much for having me.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.