After tough year, local tourism officials hope for return to form

On the heels of an unimaginably difficult year, local tourism officials are confident the tri-state area will see signs of progress over the remainder of 2021.

“I think things will look much better this year. I really do,” said Travel Dubuque President and CEO Keith Rahe. “Once we get into the warmer weather, and by that time frame, hopefully, a lot more people will be vaccinated as well, I think we could really see things pick up.”

This week, Rahe presented tourism statistics to the Dubuque City Council.

Dubuque County’s hotel occupancy rate — viewed as a reliable indicator of how many people are traveling — illustrated the swift decline in tourism caused by the pandemic.

Hotel occupancy in Dubuque was 40.5% in 2020, down from 62% in 2019. The gulf was most evident in March 2020, when the occupancy rate was 31.7%, compared to 60.2% during the same month the prior year; in April 2020, 16.2% compared to 58.6% in the prior year; and in May 2020, 22.6% vs. 62.8% in the prior year.

“No other industry has been more decimated than us,” Rahe said.

He believes that growing consumer confidence and one monumental event — the Major League Baseball game in August in Dyersville, Iowa — will help bring a sense of momentum to local tourism.

He said it is difficult to project whether business conventions and live music — both key components of Dubuque tourism — will return to form in 2021. However, he expressed confidence that outdoor recreation will continue its upward trajectory.

The decline of tourism was also evident in Galena, Ill. Rose Noble, president and CEO of Galena Country Tourism, explained that officials in Jo Daviess County generally use “lodging tax collection” to measure tourism levels in the community.

Noble said lodging tax collection has been down about 20% since the pandemic began. The decline was most pronounced in April and May, when the county saw declines of 86% and 80% compared to the prior year.

But the local economy bounced back in the warmer weather, when tourism activity in Galena and surrounding communities was “exceptional,” Noble said.

“Since we are a rural area and a pure leisure destination, I think that really benefited us,” she said. “We were fortunate compared to some other destinations, where they rely more on large conferences and business travel.”

Noble said the region also has taken away some positive lessons from the pandemic. For instance, City of Galena officials in 2020 closed portions of Main Street to traffic, opening them to the adjacent businesses. After seeing positive results last year, city leaders have already agreed to use that strategy again in 2021.

“I am hesitant to say we will be all the way back to (tourism levels) we saw in 2019,” said Noble. “But I am optimistic it will be a good year.”

One of the area’s most well-known tourist attractions, the Field of Dreams movie site, still was a draw in 2020. Roman Weinberg, director of operations for Go The Distance Baseball, said the site attracted more than 100,000 visitors hailing from 41 states and two foreign countries.

“It was a year when everyone was getting back to basics and living a simplistic life,” he said. “What is simpler than a baseball field in rural Iowa?”

The Field of Dreams also benefited from the introduction of new amenities, including a refurbished event center, and the new If You Build It exhibit was unveiled in Dyersville.

And while Major League Baseball ultimately scrapped plans to host a game at a newly constructed ballpark at the Field of Dreams in 2020, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees are scheduled to square off there on Aug. 12 of this year.

“(MLB) could have wiped this game off their itinerary completely,” he said. “It is a relief to know that they didn’t. They’re sticking with it, and I think it speaks to how important they view this game.”