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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As summer temperatures continue to increase, so does Austin's "Party Island"—a hundreds-strong army of kayakers and paddle boarders who gather each weekend in the middle of Lady Bird Lake.
Born from the pandemic, the swarm of paddleboarding partiers has continued to grow each summer and can be seen from the nearby Lamar Boulevard Bridge. And while "Party Island" certainly lives up to one half of its name, it's not actually an island at all: instead, it's located at a shallow sandbar near Lou Neff Point.
With beers, burgers from portable grills and even DJ turntables in hand, more friends and strangers continue to beat the heat in new ways at the distinct Austin hangout.
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If you are a committed, grunge-wearing resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy–almost automatic–to look at Texas as an extraordinarily dry, hot and culturally oppressive place that is better to avoid, especially in the summer. Our two granddaughters live with their parents in Portland.
Recently we decided to take the older girl, who is 15, to Dallas. Setting aside the summer heat, a Portlander can adjust to the vibes of Austin without effort. So let’s take Texas with all of its excesses straight up. Dallas, here we come.
Our 15-year-old granddaughter and her sister, 12, have spent summer weeks with us, usually separately so that we could better get to know each individually. In visits focused on Austin and Port Aransas, the girls seemed to be developing an affection for Texas.
Houston and Dallas are two great American cities, the 4th and 9th largest, each loaded with cultural treasures, each standing in glittering and starchy contrast to Austin’s more louche, T-shirts and shorts ways.
Three hours up I-35, Dallas loomed before us as a set of gray skyscrapers in a filmy haze, accessed only through a concrete mixmaster of freeways, ramps and exits. I drove with false confidence. Be calm, I said to myself, it will all end in 10 minutes under the hotel entrance canopy. And it did.
The pool at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. (Crescent Court Hotel)
We stayed three nights at the Crescent Court Hotel ($622 a night for two queens), a high-end hotel in Uptown, patronized by women in white blazers, business people in suits, and tall, lean professional athletes, their shiny Escalades and Corvettes darting in and out, and other celebrities like Bill Barr, the former attorney general who shoe-horned his ample self into a Toyota.
Each morning as I walked to Whole Foods for a cappuccino, a fellow identified by a bellman as Billy the Oilman arrived in his Rolls Royce Phantom. Where does he park? “Wherever he wants to. He likes the Starbucks here.”
We garaged our more modest set of wheels for the visit. We were chauffeured for tips by Matt Cooney and Alfonza “The Rev” Scott in the hotel’s black Audi sedan. They drove us to museums, restaurants and past the enclaves of the rich and famous. In Highland Park, The Rev pointed out the homes of the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman along with the family compound of the Hunts, oil and gas tycoons.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Cartier and Islam” exhibit (until Sept. 18) attracted an older crowd; the nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science was a powerful whirlpool of kids’ groups ricocheting from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the oil fracking exhibit. Watch your shins.
A Geogia O'Keeffe oil painting called "Ranchos Church, New Mexico" at the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art. (Rich Oppel)
For us, the best museum was the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, a 50-minute, madcap drive away via a 75 mph toll lane along I-30. Don’t try it during rush hour. The Carter has an exquisite collection of Remington paintings and sculptures and an excellent array of 19th and 20th-century paintings as well. Pick one museum? The Amon Carter. Peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, free admission and small enough to manage in two hours.
The Fort Worth Stockyards, a place of history (with a dab of schmaltz), fun and good shopping, filled one of our mornings. The 98 acres brand the city as Cowboy Town, with a rodeo and a twice-daily (11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) cattle drive. We shopped for boots, drank coffee and watched the “herd” of 18 longhorns. So languid was their progress that if this were a real market drive the beef would have been very tough and leathery before it hit the steakhouse dinner plate.
The cattle drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Rich Oppel)
But we could identify: the temperature was 97. “I saw a dog chasing a cat today,” said the emcee, deploying a very old joke. “It was so hot that both were walking.”
With limited time, we chose three very different restaurants:
- Nobu, in the Crescent Court Hotel; Jia, a modern Chinese restaurant in Highland Park; and Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth. Nobu’s exotic Japanese menu set us back $480, with tip, for four (we had a guest), but it was worth it.
- Jia was an ordinary suburban strip mall restaurant, but with good food and a reasonable tab of $110 for four.
- Joe T.’s is an 85-year-old Fort Worth institution (think Matt’s El Rancho but larger), a fine Mexican restaurant where a meal with two drinks was $115.
Sushi at high-end restaurant Nobu. (Crescent Hotel)
It was all a splurge for a grandchild’s visit. Now we will get back to our ordinary road trips of Hampton Inns, where a room rate is closer to the Crescent Court’s overnight parking rate of $52. And to corner cafes in small towns.
Did Dallas change our 15-year-old’s view of Texas? “Yes. I think it’s a lot cooler than I did. The fashion, the food.” So, not only Austin is cool. Take Texas as a whole. It’s a big, complex, diverse and wonderful state.