Vacation innovation: Pandemic has Georgians reroute plans for time off

Signs posted along the broadwalk on the beach in Hollywood Florida advocate for people to wear a mask unless exercising 6 feet away from others in September 2020. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Signs posted along the broadwalk on the beach in Hollywood Florida advocate for people to wear a mask unless exercising 6 feet away from others in September 2020. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Travel spending sees sharp downturn, but some Americans still find ways to hit the road

While the pandemic was raging across the country last May, Tucker resident Christina Apodaca hit the road on a cross-country family trip to California, overnighting in Tennessee, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

It was far different from her earlier trips. There was no going out to bars or restaurants or live music. Driving along I-40 also brought a slower pace as the family stopped at swimming holes and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

“We did a lot of picnicking and trail walking in beautiful outdoor places,” Apodaca said.

Christina Apodaca and her mother, Ernestina, stopped in Oklahoma during a cross-country road trip in May 2020. Unlike earlier trips, they did not go out to bars or restaurants or live music.
Christina Apodaca and her mother, Ernestina, stopped in Oklahoma during a cross-country road trip in May 2020. Unlike earlier trips, they did not go out to bars or restaurants or live music.

Credit: Source: Christina Apodaca

Credit: Source: Christina Apodaca

They eschewed big cities for small towns. In their hotel rooms, she said, “we’d wash our masks every night in the sink and hang them to dry.” At one hotel in Lone Pine, California, her family stayed at one end of the pool and another family stayed at the other.

Many Americans canceled vacation trips last year while trying to stay safe. Travel spending fell 42% in 2020 as more “staycations” took hold, according to the U.S. Travel Association. U.S. hotels averaged a 44% occupancy rate, a record low, according to data provider STR. Passenger counts at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport plunged 61%.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend against traveling after the coronavirus already has claimed more than half a million U.S. lives. Only 12% of Americans plan to travel for spring break this year, according to one survey in late February.

ABOUT OUR PANDEMIC ANNIVERSARY SERIES

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.

Coming Thursday: How we dine

But others have been venturing out. With popular foreign destinations off limits amid travel restrictions, many are exploring the great American outdoors. Recreational vehicle rental marketplace RVShare reported a 650% rise in RV rental bookings early in the pandemic, and bookings remained strong through the winter.

Apodaca was wary of sharing air with strangers, but she faced the task of moving her mother across the country. So she found a way to make it into a vacation, bringing along her two children.

Others just want to get away to take a break from home ― even if it’s not that far away.

Tybee Island has had record bed tax collections since July and finished the year down only 5.8% from its record 2019, according to Visit Tybee, which promotes tourism to the beach destination near Savannah.

ExploreCOVID one year later: How the pandemic has altered our daily lives

Blue Ridge Parkway had more than 14 million visitors in 2020, with more traffic between September and December than in 2019. Cabin rentals have been selling out in the mountain town of Blue Ridge, and other places north of Atlanta like Lake Lanier and Ellijay also have seen a steady stream of travelers, according to state tourism office Explore Georgia.

Last year was the second busiest year on record for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with more than 12 million visitors, despite being closed for 46 days in the spring and partial closures through August. Record traffic between August and December damaged roadsides as visitors, confronted by full parking lots, pulled over elsewhere.

Florida beaches, also within a day’s drive for Georgians, have been another magnet.

Stone Mountain resident Michele Giacobbe stayed inside when the pandemic first hit. But then, “as time went on, we realized this is not something that is going to go away in three or four months, so we’re going to have to try and adapt.”

Giacobbe and her husband have ventured out to Panama City Beach and Destin in recent months. “In front of the big resorts, you can see everybody packed in,” she said. “You’ve got to go to the sand, take a left or a right and keep walking.”

Michele Giacobbe vacationed in Panama City Beach, Florida in July 2020. “In front of the big resorts, you can see everybody packed in,” she said. “You’ve got to go to the sand, take a left or a right and keep walking.”
Michele Giacobbe vacationed in Panama City Beach, Florida in July 2020. “In front of the big resorts, you can see everybody packed in,” she said. “You’ve got to go to the sand, take a left or a right and keep walking.”

Credit: Michele Giacobbe

Credit: Michele Giacobbe

Buckhead travel agent Colette O’Brien Allen’s clients in past years took luxury trips to places like France, Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Over the last year, she has sent people on excursions to places like Moab, Utah; Santa Fe, New Mexico and Sun Valley, Idaho, where the biggest draw is the beauty of outdoor landscapes. Such domestic trips also have replaced weekends at the theater in New York, celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans or strolling through museums in Washington, D.C.

Many vacationers appear to be going to places they remember from childhood or “maybe remind them of a simpler time when life wasn’t as complicated as it is now,” said consumer travel advocate Chris Elliott.

AIRBNB'S TOP DESTINATIONS IN 2021

The top Airbnb destinations in 2021 include:

Great Smoky Mountains

Breckenridge, Colo.

Davenport, Florida

Palm Springs, Calif.

Tulum, Mexico

That’s a marked shift to domestic vacations from September 2019, when U.S. travelers were most interested in cities like Paris, London and Rome.

Source: Airbnb

Airbnb said its top booked spaces include full homes, cabins and cottages that avoid elevators and crowded hotel lobbies — supplanting apartments, villas and townhouses popular a year ago.

At the Loews Atlanta Hotel in Midtown, the buzz of business travelers during the workweek is mostly gone and conference halls sit empty. It’s also not full on weekends, but it’s less empty, as some road-tripping vacationers visit Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. More guests also are getting room service instead of heading to a restaurant, said Paul Puzzanghero, the hotel’s managing director.

At some other hotels, those looking to avoid crowded gyms are finding options like in-room Peloton bikes at properties including the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.

THIS YEAR'S MOST POPULAR REASONS TO TRAVEL

Among those planning to travel for spring break this year, the reasons cited as most important:

Relax and escape stress (73%)

Spending time with family (71%)

Escape boredom (71%)

Visit new places or destinations (68%)

Get away from daily life (67%)

People surveyed in 2019 said their top reasons for traveling that year were to avoid burnout (28%), because friends or family asked them to come along on a trip (23%), for the holidays (12%), because of travel discounts (9%) or to check an item off their bucket list (8%).

Source: U.S. Travel Association

Many who travel during the pandemic try to keep a lower profile than in the past, when posting awe-worthy images on social media used to be a raison d’être. In Conde Nast’s Women Who Travel group on Facebook, with more than 150,000 members, one user wrote: “So much travel shaming going on on this platform.” Another user responded, “If you’re going to travel during a GLOBAL HEALTH CRISIS don’t post it.”

Giacobbe said she has been open with friends and family about vacationing in Florida, but “some have not been happy with it.” After she returned from a trip to the beach, a friend told her to quarantine for 10 days before they got together.

Michele Giacobbe, who traveled to Panama City Beach last July, said she has been open with friends and family about vacationing in Florida, but “some have not been happy with it.” After she returned from a trip to the beach, a friend told her to quarantine for 10 days before they got together.
Michele Giacobbe, who traveled to Panama City Beach last July, said she has been open with friends and family about vacationing in Florida, but “some have not been happy with it.” After she returned from a trip to the beach, a friend told her to quarantine for 10 days before they got together.

Credit: Michele Giacobbe

Credit: Michele Giacobbe

Some people are quietly taking time away while not taking time off. Airbnb said a survey last year showed 60% of longer-term guests were working or studying during their stays.

Lilburn resident Jason Davis has traveled to Gatlinburg, Orlando, Ormond Beach, Hilton Head and elsewhere during the pandemic, and took in an oceanfront view during a January “workcation” in Virginia Beach.

“As long as I’ve got a computer and I’ve got wi-fi, I’ve been good,” he said.

Apodaca, who crossed the U.S. last year, plans to take her next trip to a lakeside cottage at a Georgia state park once school’s out.

Then, when it’s safer again, she’s looking forward to trips with outings to restaurants and bars.

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They said it:

“Take wipes, and wipe down things like doorknobs, light switches, remote controls. You can do it safely, if you do all those things, I think.” — Michele Giacobbe, Stone Mountain

“Before, I really liked going out, going to bars, going to restaurants, seeing live music when I was on vacation. But now it’s more about swimming and the outdoors.” — Christina Apodaca, Tucker

“RVing and isolated trips to the cabins in the mountains have been the best socially distanced experience for us thus far.” — Aubrey Crook, who runs The King and Queen Travel Society group on Facebook

“Enjoying the great outdoors while staying in your own personal space — nothing could be better for traveling safe during these times.” — Natalie Geiger, whose husband started a business building custom teardrop campers

“In times past, typically hotel lobbies were cleaned when there were the fewest amount of guests there. You just didn’t want to be in guests’ way.” Now, hotels are “being much, much more obvious about their cleaning. ... Travelers certainly do want to know that protocols are in place and it’s actively being done.” — Michael Owens, president of the Savannah-based Tourism Leadership Council

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