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Journal Times editorial: The new zoom is tourism

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“You can’t be on Zoom meetings forever,” said Dave Blank, president and CEO of Real Racine, the local tourism bureau. “You have to eventually meet face to face.”

Cooped-up Wisconsinites showed they are more than ready to shed meetings, conferences and social gatherings forced to be virtual because of COVID-19.

The new zoom is the skyrocketing return of tourism across the state and particularly here in southeastern Wisconsin. Reports this week from the United States Travel Association showed Wisconsin experienced its first growth in monthly year-over-year tourism spending compared to pre-COVID 2019 which was the state’s best year on record.

The state’s tourism industry is not expected to hit the $17 billion mark set in 2019, but it’s well on the way to a rebound from its 22 percent drop last year.

Numbers across Racine County echo that upward trend. Blank said this year’s tourism levels are back up to 2019 levels and expected to exceed it. Tourism dropped 40 percent when the pandemic hit, but has now rebounded and is up 45 percent this year.

“We’re back to record numbers here,” Blank said, “We’re going to see this for another year or so.” He said the hotel industry recovered more quickly than experts predicted and revenues for hotels are at all-time highs. Staff shortages remain problematic for some hotels.

Hotel owner and Mount Pleasant Tourism Commissioner H.D. Patel shared the enthusiasm. “Family reunions, weddings, sports tournaments, you name it, we saw all of it. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe there was that much. We saw good numbers this past season and we’re looking forward to an even greater demand in the next year,” Patel said.

Wisconsin’s tourism comeback reflects the nation’s experience as well. This week the World Travel and Tourism Council reported the U.S. is leading the world in the global recovery of the travel and tourism sector and projected it will surpass pre-pandemic levels. Through the rest of the year, the U.S. travel and tourism industry is expected to be up 35.6 percent. The year-over-year increase is expected to be up 28.4 percent which would drive its contribution to Gross Domestic Product to $1.9 trillion — past pre-pandemic levels.

That tourism rise also means more jobs — and more jobs coming. The WTTC report said after a loss of 5.5 million jobs due to the pandemic, this year the travel and tourism industry employment has added 2.9 million jobs and the forecast for 2022 sees the creation of 2.75 million more jobs, bringing total employment to 16.72 million jobs — again ahead of pre-pandemic levels.

It’s a remarkable turnaround and one that will buoy other sections of the local economy as it puts dollars in the pockets of newly-hired workers and brings revenues to all the attendant support industries that serve the tourism industry.

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