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Tourists trickle in for a taste of Austin charm

Weekend tourism to Austin is approaching pre-pandemic levels, but business tourism will likely take a few more years to make a full rebound. (Austonia staff)

Tourism is back, kind of.

There are enough out-of-town visitors to produce winding car lines at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport arrivals area, a 45-minute wait for a table at Elizabeth Street Cafe at 3 p.m. on a Sunday and a record number of Lake Travis party boat bookings. Just this week, all levels of tickets for ACL sold out for both weekends within three hours of being released.

"It just feels like in the last two to four weeks there's been this, like, sigh," said Tom Noonan, Visit Austin president and CEO. "We might be seeing normal again."

Not everything has rebounded, however. Although weekend leisure tourism—think bachelor parties, live music and anniversary celebrants—is approaching pre-pandemic levels, business tourism, which fills hotel rooms and restaurant dining rooms during the week, is still on the fritz. "I think '22 is going to feel a lot more normal than '20 or '21," Noonan said, but he estimates full recovery is about three years away.

The good news

The return of weekend tourism is already being felt. It's reflected in downtown pedestrian activity, which has been growing since mid-February, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance. COO Julie Fisk suspects this uptick is due to a combination of factors: warming weather, vaccine access and the return of weekend visitors. "I would call it half of what it would have normally been in pre-pandemic years but definitely an uptick in the low levels of pedestrian activity that we saw during the height of the pandemic," she told Austonia.

Downtown visitor activity is picking up. (Downtown Austin Alliance)

Fisk believes the summer will prove a critical time in the ongoing recovery, as residents and visitors alike grow more comfortable resuming normal life. "Now it really is about that consumer confidence and having people feel safe and that it is a healthy thing to go out and enjoy the types of things that we all loved before the pandemic," she said.

Some businesses are already benefiting from weekend tourists. Mod Bikes, an electric bike store on South First Street, started seeing increased demand for electric bike rentals, which are driven almost entirely by tourists, in mid-February. "The last two months it's gotten so crazy that we simply had to stop rentals on our website because we just couldn't keep up with it anymore," Managing partner Mike Cherches said.

Mod Bikes, an electric bike store in South Austin, has seen record demand for its rentals in recent months. (Mod Bikes/Instagram)

The bad news

Despite these improvements, the Austin tourism industry is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it plummeted due to the pandemic.

Visit Austin booked 43,000 hotel room nights in April, a steep increase from March when it had booked around 10,000 but still short of pre-pandemic levels, when it averaged around 63,000 a month, Noonan said.

Since the pandemic began, Visit Austin has had 540 tour groups cancel nearly 650,000 hotel room nights, totaling around $180 million in lost revenue and almost $20 million in lost hotel occupancy tax revenue. This doesn't include tourism that is unconnected to Visit Austin, such as SXSW, ACL and the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.

Still, Noonan is optimistic. Before the pandemic, Visit Austin developed a new campaign. The tagline? Austin: It's way better live. "That was a great campaign pre-pandemic," he said. "Now it's even more resonant."


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