IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After months of telling people to stay away, some big cities need new ways to bring tourists back

“No one wants to be viewed as doing less than others to attract and protect travelers,” said one tourism expert.
Image: People wear masks as they cross Broadway in Nashville
People wear masks as they cross Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., on June 30, 2020. The Nashville Health Department has put in place a mask mandate to help battle the spread of the coronavirus.Mark Humphrey / AP

Right as the busy summer travel season staggers across the start line, many states are already hitting the brakes on reopening plans due to record spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Yet in some parts of the country, beaches and bars are filling up, hotel occupancy rates are rising and attractions such as zoos, aquariums and museums are welcoming back visitors. Disney World Resort’s phased opening plans in Florida are on track for July 11, while Disneyland’s plans in California continue to be on hold.

The push to reopen is fueled in part by businesses starving for customers and cash flow — but also by a cooped-up public cautiously optimistic about making travel plans, and hoping for a slowdown in the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, communities who have, for months, been asking guests to stay away are scrambling for ways to get business and leisure travelers to come back. Branded campaigns declaring a destination clean and safe are trending.

“Tourism has taken a serious blow and destinations are doing whatever they can to restore consumer confidence,” said Misty Belles, a managing director with the Virtuoso travel agency network. “We know that concerns over contracting the virus is one of the key barriers to getting people comfortable with traveling again, so cities across the country are touting their enhanced cleaning protocols to quell those fears.”

In Columbus, Ohio, window decals and website badges are a sign that businesses have signed the "Live Forward" pledge to make the health and safety of patrons a priority.

“To meet this obligation, we’ve established additional protection measures and trained our team in enhanced best practices for safety and sanitation,” said David Miller, president and CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which operates several eateries in Central Ohio.

Cleveland’s Clean Committed campaign provides participating businesses with safety kits, guidelines and materials to help make sure the city is ready for the return of visitors.

In Rochester, Minnesota, where face coverings must be worn in indoor public spaces, businesses in the Rochester Ready program are also implementing protocols in physical distancing, cleaning, sanitizing and building ventilation.

Nashville’s Good to Go program is one of many with searchable databases of businesses that have vowed to adhere to coronavirus guidelines.

“No destination manager or government entity wants to be viewed as doing less than others to attract and protect travelers,” said lodging industry consultant Bjorn Hanson.

States are getting into the act as well. Indiana has a Hoosier Hospitality Promise, and the Count on Me NC public health initiative program stretches across North Carolina.

But will travelers trust a city’s seal of cleanliness?

Megan Tenney, whose family of six has been traveling full time since September 2018, now monitors COVID requirements and the health news in locations the family is considering visiting.

“We’re focusing on places that seem to be doing better or were less affected to begin with,” said Tenney. “I think a ‘clean campaign’ would give us confidence to travel to a location.”

But while Brian DeRoy of Charleston, South Carolina, feels that “whoever can market best in the game of being clean is going to have an advantage,” Seattle-based frequent traveler Rob Grabarek would not feel reassured by a city’s program alone.

“I’d have to examine the extent of a local government’s policies to see if I felt they were sufficient,” said Grabarek. "While I applaud the idea of identifying businesses that are in compliance, I wouldn’t feel safe unless the entire community were adhering to the same stringent practices.”

Given that there is no single organization or government entity to oversee and assure that all these cleaning campaigns are effective, the emphasis on cleanliness as a destination marketing tool may not last long.

“Our travel advisers tell us there are really two traveler mindsets right now,” said Virtuoso’s Belles, “Those who want to pull back the curtain and know how everything they potentially come in contact with is being sterilized — and those who just want to trust that it’s happening. Too much focus on cleanliness may actually backfire on those looking for the escapism in their vacation."