What’s clear from this year is that people want to visit Galveston.
The spring brought closures that left island beaches and streets empty; but summer brought a surge of day-trippers.
Despite pandemic-related lockdowns, people traveled to the island from across Texas this year in search of outdoor space within driving distance of major cities. The travel shielded the island from some of the worst economic effects of the pandemic, though industry-wide, businesses are reporting reduced revenues.
In fiscal year 2019, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees collected $12.05 million in hotel occupancy tax. This year, it collected only about $10.33 million, less than what it collected in 2017, according to records.
The park board, which manages island tourism, hasn’t yet calculated exactly how many visitors traveled to Galveston this year. Before the pandemic, the island was attracting well more than 7 million visitors annually.
But the park board does know more Houston, Dallas-area and Central Texas residents have been driving to the island, park board CEO Kelly de Schaun said.
“Many Texans who would normally fly to a beach destination like Mexico, Florida or the Caribbean decided to stay closer to home,” de Schaun said. “Galveston is the closest beach to many of our drive markets.”
Virtual work and school also made it easier for people to spend time in Galveston, she said.
Tourism leaders also have pointed to the island’s beaches and outdoor areas as the major draw this year.
Although admissions for beach parks were down this fiscal year — $2 million as opposed to $2.4 million — camping and fishing revenue was up.
The park board made $761,000 in fishing revenue from fees at Seawolf Park — $64,000 more than the $697,000 in 2019 — and $834,000 from camping revenues at Dellanera RV Park — $138,000 more than the $696,000 in 2019, according to park board data.
‘IT JUST TOOK OFF’
The Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council has been fielding more inquiries this year from people who want to get outside on the island, Executive Director Julie Ann Brown said.
Galveston is lucky to have so many natural areas that provide options for birders, boaters and fishers, Brown said.
“Being outside is the safest place to be,” Brown said. “We get lots of people that are coming down from Houston.”
And Brown is confident the trend will continue, she said.
“Once you get people outside, and they have a meaningful experience in nature, they’re more likely to continue doing that,” Brown said.
It’s definitely been a good year for charter fishing companies, said Greg Ball, owner and captain of Wave Dancer Charters.
Ball’s company, like many others, was shut down for about six weeks this spring. He probably has made up for that and possibly even exceeded his revenues for last year, he said.
“When we opened back up May 1, it just took off,” Ball said.
$1.2 BILLION INDUSTRY
Visitation has been down for some island attractions, however.
Moody Gardens, one of the island’s largest attractions, estimates attendance has been down about 40 percent this year, spokeswoman Jerri Hamachek said.
The attraction has been monitoring its capacity levels, but for the most part, it hasn’t had to limit guests because fewer people are going anyway, she said.
The spring was particularly hard, when the attraction was mandated to close and — with less revenue coming in — had to furlough about 80 percent of its staff.
“We brought most of them back, but we also had to mirror what the level of business is,” Hamachek said.
Tourism is a major employer in Galveston, a point that became painfully clear this spring when many businesses had to furlough or let go of employees. Tourism spending accounts for about $1.2 billion locally during normal times.
Moody Gardens is adapting to the new demands by introducing more outdoor events, like a capacity-limited New Year cruise on its paddlewheel boat, the Colonel, Hamachek said.
HIGH DEMAND FOR GETAWAYS
The year also has brought a major shift in the lodging industry. Local hotels generally fared better than in the rest of the state.
From Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, Galveston hotels averaged 52 percent occupancy, compared to 50.5 percent across Texas, according with data from lodging research company Source Strategies. And room rates were about $123.38 daily in Galveston, compared with an average rate of $92.96 statewide, according to the data.
Many vacation rental companies reported high demand well into the fall from people looking for a getaway with a separate unit that makes social distancing easy.
Island businessman Dennis Byrd saw an occupancy dip of 30 percent to 35 percent in his seawall hotels, including DoubleTree by Hilton Galveston Beach, 1702 Seawall Blvd., but business was only off about 5 percent in his popular restaurant, The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd., he said.
It will be tough entering the shoulder season without special events such as the annual Lone Star Rally to draw people to the island, he said.
‘WHOLE NEW LEVEL’
Restaurants also are feeling the dip in business travel, which normally would draw hundreds of people for conventions, said James Clark, director of operations and managing partner of Mosquito Cafe, 628 14th St. and president of the Galveston Restaurant Association.
“The island was definitely busy during the summer, but it was mostly day trippers,” Clark said. “It didn’t really help the restaurants all that much.”
Restaurants instead saw a bump with September and October, when virtual school and work allowed people to continue taking trips well past the traditional busy season, Clark said.
What Byrd takes away from this year is that visitors’ priorities have rearranged, he said.
Now, people are willing to wait a little longer for their meal if they feel like a business is taking sufficient safety procedures.
“There’s a whole new level of what’s important to the guest experience,” Byrd said.
That could continue for a while, he said.