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Fewer tourists more than an inconvenience in Williamsburg

August 15, 2020 - 6:01 AM

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - They call them the dark ages — winter months in the Historic Triangle — when tourists have long departed and restaurants, hotels and stores need to live on their humps.

This year, the dark ages look like they’ll be gloomier than ever.

To many, it feels as if Gov. Ralph Northam’s order last month limiting hours on restaurants and bars and capping the size of social gatherings in Hampton Roads pretty much closed the door on the summer tourism season, despite Busch Gardens’ plan for a limited opening on two four-day weekends this month.

Only about one in five Williamsburg area hotel rooms were occupied in June; normally at this time of year the area’s hotels average two-thirds full, said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association.

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LOST WORK, EMPTY ROOMS

It’s not just hotels hurting, either.

“I just lost a gig; 150 people at Kingsmill,” said Jim Kennedy, who owns the FoodATude catering company.

“I’d had 102 events cancelled ... I’m down more than 80% in sales,” he said. Kennedy said his friends in the restaurant business are seeing sales down 60 to 80%; he said some hotels are down 90%.

“You need the summer to make it through the winter,” he said. “Some people aren’t going to make it.”

For those who do, Kennedy figures it will be at least two to three years to recover.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where we were,” said Jacx Ramos, a partner in the Center Street Grill.

It’s been local regulars who have kept her business going as tourist traffic dried up and the restaurant’s back room — where hosting graduation parties and other celebrations has been a major money earner — remains dark.

“When I answer the phone, it’s just ‘cancel, cancel, cancel,‘” she said.

Over the past few weeks, as restrictions on indoor dining eased, longtime customers — many of them older people who tend to be more concerned about the risks of getting the new coronavirus — started coming back.

But, she worries that won’t last.

“People who’ve been feeling homebound and just started venturing out with their masks are going to be scared again,” Ramos said.

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DEPENDING ON TOURISM

In a community where nearly 14,000 normally are directly employed by hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions — roughly one out of every five working adults — it can be devastating when people stay home. For many of the roughly 9,000 who work in retail stores, serving tourists is their main job.

One measure of the impact of the virus is tax collections.

In York County, for instance, hotel tax revenue was down 65% in June compared to the year before, Deputy County Administrator Vivian McGettigan said. Hotel visits were off from 2019 levels by 64% in March, 92% in April and 87% in May. In April, 51 restaurants in the county reported no revenue, while 32 did in May.

James City County’s meals tax revenue was down 48% in March, when halfway through the month, the state limited restaurants to seating no more than 10 diners quickly followed by an order closing indoor and outdoor dining.

With only takeout and delivery allowed in April, meals tax revenue was off by 70% in April. Permission to offer outdoor dining midway through May allowed a modest, $82,000 increase in tax collections from April’s level — representing a roughly $2 million increase in all the county restaurants’ receipts — down 58% from 2019's levels.

In the city of Williamsburg, hotel tax collections were down 89% in April, 91% in May and 86% in June. Meals tax collections dropped 52% in March, 60% in April, 64% in May and 52% in June.

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THE BUSCH GARDENS HIT

Even though the area’s oldest tourist draw — Colonial Williamsburg — reopened in June, closed doors so far this summer at Busch Gardens and Water Country USA have hurt.

The impact is stark at Historic Triangle hotels, Kirkland said.

They’ve currently got about 2,900 empty rooms that would normally be full this time of year. That, in turn, adds up to pretty close to the numbers of people who visit Busch Gardens on a typical summer day, once you consider those who stay in campgrounds, time shares or bed-and-breakfasts, he said.

Northam’s March stay-at-home order closed amusement parks closed, a shuttering only eased on July 1 by allowing them to open to no more than 1,000 people at a time. That felt arbitrary to Historic Triangle hoteliers, since Virginia Beach was opened ahead of Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer vacations. Virginia Beach Oceanfront hotels saw a 63% occupancy rate in June, compared to Williamsburg’s 21%, Kirkland said.

With occupancy running at less than one third the usual June levels, Kirkland figures hoteliers’ revenues are off by nearly 85%.

“It’s been devastating,” he said. “I don’t know if some will really be able to stick it out.”

That’s because hotels need the summer to make it through the winter.

“You get by in January, February and the first half of March, doing what you can; with spring break you’re breaking even ... summer is when you pull in the money, stash it away for the winter,” he said.

What’s unfair about that, in his view, is that enforcement of social distancing standards would be a lot easier at Busch Gardens than at the beach, since the park’s owner, Sea World, has procedures for temperature checks, requiring face coverings and intensified cleaning that work at its facilities in other states, Kirkland said.

He’s not expecting much of a bounce from the limited opening at Busch Gardens for those two weeks in August.

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A WIDESPREAD IMPACT

“There is something of a symbiotic relationship as visitors cross pollinate and do not restrict their experiences in the Historic Triangle to just one venue,”said state Sen. Thomas K. Norment, R-James City, a lifelong resident of the Williamsburg area and former board member at Colonial Williamsburg.

“They may do Busch Gardens one day, Colonial Williamsburg the next day and enjoy an evening concert on the Yorktown waterfront that night,” he said.

“The economic ripple effect then impacts the restaurants, gift shops, campgrounds, Harris Teeter, the gas station, Wawas, timeshares,” he said. “The local economy is hemorrhaging and the severity of that impact will really not be fatally felt until the off season winter months.”

And, he added, the Historic Triangle is suffering more than just financial pain.

“There is the emotional and psychological impact associated with stress of: ‘how am I going to pay my mortgage on my hotel or restaurant, how am I going to pay my bills and feed our family if I have no job,’” Norment said. “ Then overlay on that stress the pandemic situation and you have a horrific intersection of the perfect financial and emotional storm.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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