Kimmswick Mayor Phil Stang looks out at his empty Missouri town, a tiny, scenic Mississippi River community normally bustling with visitors, and sees the economic ravages of the coronavirus. The artist shops and restaurants are closed, and there’s little chance the popular Strawberry Festival will go on in June.
“Now I have no tax income because nothing is open — zero — in the city of Kimmswick,” Stang said. Last year’s flood already depleted reserves and Stang may resort to GoFundMe to raise money for basic city services.
“Would I do it? I am shameless because I really, really, really care about this place,” Stang said.
Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have devastated businesses at the core of tourism, one of Missouri’s biggest industries. Missouri hotel occupancy for the week ending March 28 was down 67% from a year ago, and travel spending in the state was down $242 million, according to data from the Missouri Division of Tourism.
No one knows when some form of normalcy will return. Surveys indicate that while some people are simply postponing trips, others are canceling completely.
“This is a time of year when travel and tourism really starts to pick up in Missouri, and for the most part it is very quiet,” said Stephen Foutes, the state’s tourism director. Memorial Day, the kickoff to the summer tourism season, could give everyone “a sense of what may be coming,” he said.
In fiscal year 2019, Missouri had 42.9 million visitors, defined as those from out of state or traveling at least 50 miles in-state. Tourism employs about 304,000 people — 1 in 12 Missouri residents — and tourists spend about $17 billion annually in the state.
Up to 5 million people visit the Lake of the Ozarks region each year, and April and May are typically busy months for conventions. This year, hotels, bars and restaurants are nearly empty, and business has dried up at real estate offices and boat shops and elsewhere, said Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau.
“There’s not a single business down here that’s not related to tourism,” Jacobsen said. “It’s amazing how fast a health crisis can turn into a financial crisis.”
Convention business also has ground to a halt in St. Louis and Kansas City. Derek Klaus of Kansas City’s tourism office, Visit KC, said 51 conventions have pulled out, along with the accompanying 111,500 room reservations. That’s a projected economic loss of $92 million.
Other events are gone for good. St. Louis lost NCAA regional basketball games. Spring fairs and festivals have been called off across the state. Zoos are closed, symphonies are shut down, concerts canceled. In Branson, all of the shows as well as the Silver Dollar City theme park are closed.
“With a $3.5 billion economy in Stone and Taney counties, we are adjusting our outlook to about half of that,” said Lynn Berry of the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
After opening renovated grounds and an expanded museum in 2018, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch had its best February in 24 years, according to Frank Mares, deputy superintendent of the Gateway Arch National Park.
Now, the museum and tram to the top of the Arch are closed. Mares said about 1,000 people a day still visit the grounds, a fraction of the normal total for an attraction that draws 2 million people annually.
Some officials are optimistic for a rebound. Klaus said 45% of the Kansas City conventions forced to cancel have already re-booked or are in discussions to do so.
The state Tourism Division is using social media to “remind people that Missouri’s a beautiful state with much to offer,” so they’ll consider a visit later, Toutes said.
“There’s no doubt that many of them are hurting right now and that difficult days lie ahead, but when the time for recovery comes and things start to turn around, tourism is really going to be poised to be a leader in the economic recovery,” Foutes said. “We feel like people are going to want to travel.”
Susanne Ragland of Columbia has been looking forward to taking her 7-year-old son to Trout Lodge in Potosi for a July gathering of relatives. That vacation is on hold. Ragland notes her 80-year-old father and 82-year-old aunt are both in the high-risk category for the coronavirus.
“I would definitely be worried about their age,” Ragland said. “We’ll kind of wait and see.”