Local officials optimistic about the future of travel and tourism in region | News

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the travel and tourism industry hard but some local officials are optimistic about the future.

At the height of the pandemic, the number of travelers at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport was down nearly 95% from 2019, which was a record-setting year, said airport executive director Carl Beardsley. Now, travel is down about 63%, he said.

“Fortunately, we have been seeing a gradual increase in travelers, month-over-month, and are optimistic that this trend will continue to grow as more people get vaccinated and our economy begins to stabilize,” Beardsley said.

Beardsley said COVID-19 has impacted the airport in positive and negative ways.

From a positive perspective, he said it allowed the airport team to heighten efforts on touchless technology, enhance cleaning strategies and improve efficiency that allows passengers to check in and board their flights with reduced waiting times.

“Plus, we have used this time to better engage with our regular customers to determine their flight destination interests and have begun planning additional routes for both business and leisure travelers,” he said.

In an effort to attract more people ready to travel once the pandemic subsides, Beardsley said airport officials have expanded community marketing efforts to focus more on leisure destinations until business travel opens back up.

Airport officials also have been engaging with local business leaders to better understand their return to “normal” schedules, he said.

“Additionally, we have been expanding our outreach efforts to geographic areas that are underserved by air travel standards in the hopes of capturing new travelers,” he said.

Now, Beardsley said he is “more optimistic than ever” that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport will be “back stronger than it was even before the pandemic hit.”

“I believe our airport is well-positioned to overcome all of this given our great facility, our great location and our great team,” he said. In addition to flights at the airport, the pandemic also has affected other modes of transportation from bussing to taxis to ride share services like Uber and Lyft.

Shares at both Uber and Lyft have rebounded from last year’s low, with Uber up more than 60% over the last year and Lyft up 50%.

In early March, Lyft announced it had its best week for rides since the pandemic lockdowns began and the company said at that time that it expected the second half of March would show positive year-over-year growth.

While COVID-19 created many transportation challenges for people, Lyft officials said rideshare services helped frontline employees get to work and helped people get groceries.

Sam Young, regional director at Lyft, said company officials are committed to ensuring Lyft is available for those who need it and that all drivers feel safe and comfortable on the road.

“As we continue to navigate COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout in Pennsylvania, it is clear that Lyft helps connect individuals with essential needs and services as well as vaccination sites,” Young said.

Like the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport, tourism In Luzerne County reached a record-setting year in 2019 and set a milestone by seeing $1 billion in economic impact resulting from visitors coming to the area, according to Visit Luzerne County and the Pennsylvania Tourism Office.

The pandemic took a major toll and Visit Luzerne County is working to build the local tourism industry back up.

Ted Wampole, executive director of Visit Luzerne County, said a report from the Pennsylvania Tourism Office illustrates that 2019 was a booming year for Luzerne County before the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a major blow to the tourism industry and businesses that support tourism. The report also showed that tourism supported more than 7,250 Luzerne County jobs in 2019.

“These 2019 numbers show the importance of building the industry and our businesses back up,” Wampole said. “A billion dollar makes a difference to our area and the people who depend on these jobs. It is why we at Visit Luzerne County have been working nonstop behind the scenes so that when people are ready to travel again, Luzerne County is at the top of their minds.”

Wampole said the airport is one of the area’s assets and the county is just a short drive from major metro areas with easy interstate access.

Another positive that could help Luzerne County climb back to the $1 billion mark is that various traveler sentiment studies reveal that many planning to travel in the coming months are looking for small town destinations with outdoor recreation opportunities like the area offers.

“The opportunities for outdoor recreation in Luzerne County are endless, with four state parks, miles of trails and numerous waterways,” Wampole said. “We’re also home to great entertainment venues, restaurants, breweries, wineries and other unique businesses. With all of this to offer, it’s easy to see why Luzerne County continues to be a top choice for everything from family reunions, weekend getaways, athletic events and conventions.”

Visit Luzerne County is the area’s official destination marketing organization and it is funded by 1% of the hotel tax visitors pay when they stay overnight in the area.

Lackawanna County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Curt Camoni said the COVID-19 pandemic also had a devastating impact on tourism in Lackawanna County after three record years of steady growth in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The tourism promotion agency in Lackawanna County is funded by the hotel tax and Camoni said there was a 40% decrease in the amount of people renting hotel rooms over the last year.

COVID-19 wiped out Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders games, concerts and festivals but like Luzerne County, Camoni said he has seen an uptick in travelers interested in outdoor socially-distanced activities and adventure tourism in Lackawanna County.

Lackawanna County River was voted Pennsylvania’s River of the Year in 2020 and Camoni has seen more visitors at the Heritage Trail and parks. People have been booking campsites at record levels and Montage Mountain Resort’s waterpark did well in the summer and the ski resort was a popular destination in the winter, he said.

Camoni also has seen restaurants in Lackawanna County reinvent themselves and transform into outdoor restaurants with entertainment and in the future, he said “they’ll probably be stronger for it.”

He also is optimistic about the future for tourism in Lackawanna County because he anticipates outdoor activities will remain strong and concerts and other major events will be “bigger and better than ever.”

Carl Beardsley, executive director of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport, said these are three most important lessons he learned in his job amid the pandemic:

Take nothing for granted. Even when your numbers are high, always be thinking about new strategies that can better serve existing and new customers.

Keep engaged with other airports around the state and throughout the country and share best practices.

Stay in touch with elected officials so that they understand the importance of our community’s airport and what it means to our economic vitality.

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