Skift Take

Rural and outdoor destinations were banking on the brand awareness they built during the years that major urban destinations were out of the competition. But return-to-normal may be eroding the visitor numbers from the pandemic years as tourists return to more crowded locations. Still, out-of-the-way places are confident travelers will still seek that breath of fresh air.

Rural and outdoor destinations are contending with slower growth rates compared to their pandemic boom as big cities become competitive again and Americans travel internationally. 

During the pandemic, people deserted cities for rural and outdoor destinations to get away from densely populated cities, a 2022 Skift Megatrend. Smaller destinations saw massive jumps from their pre-pandemic levels. 

Lake City, Colorado, a town of 400, for example, saw a 50 percent jump in lodging stays in 2021 compared to 2019, according to Hinsdale County/Lake City Chamber of Commerce Director and Event Coordinator Kate Hopson. The remote town received over 400,000 visitors in 2020.  “We saw a lot of folks come out here and get away from it all to a place that was safe,” she said. 

Destinations with outdoor attractions absorbed traffic from bigger cities as tourists went on road trips. Vacaville, California, a city of 100,000, received an influx from San Francisco and Sacramento taking advantage of its agritourism attractions like the alpaca farm, according to Visit Vacaville President and CEO Melyssa Reeves. 

Smaller destinations also unlocked a new market of visitors. Kalispell, Montana, attracted a different kind of visitor, one that was not familiar or experienced with recreating and camping in the more wild outdoors, according to Discover Kalispell Executive Director Diane Medler. The tourism bureau had to focus on visitor education to help them adjust. Kalispell, a town of 25,000, is located outside Glacier National Park.

Now those 2022 gains aren’t as strong as they were in 2021. Growth rates have slowed. Jackson Hole, for example, saw its visitor numbers drop to pre-pandemic levels after a record 2021. Vacaville’s occupancy growth rate is now flat from 2021 and at the 2019 level. Kalispell and Lake City don’t expect to see the same occupancy growth rate for 2022 they saw in 2021 over 2019. 

A big part of that has been the return of interest in densely populated cities and the opening of international travel. Global cities are now “back and growing in popularity“ after a rough 2021 and 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Cities Economic Impact report. Americans are traveling abroad or going to big cities like New York and London again now that the pandemic is over. The UN World Tourism Organization cited strong American travel demand as the big driver of Europe’s recovery to pre-pandemic levels.

This year, all destinations will chase a shrinking pie of American travel dollars. About 34 percent plan to decrease their spending on travel in the next 12 months, according to Skift Research.  Those limited dollars may be spent on road trips, as 2023 becomes a year for airlines to earn easy revenue, a Skift megatrend.

Kalispell’s Medler says rising air travel costs could work in her destination’s favor. “The road trip is still popular and I think in some regards becoming more popular and we’re we’re perfect road trip destination,” she said.

Big cities still want a piece of the driver market that goes to outdoor destinations. “[San Francisco is] really still focused on putting a lot of money into the drive market, which is a challenge for us because we never really competed with San Francisco on speaking to the drive market,” Vacaville’s Reeves said.

And these competitors have bigger marketing budgets. “Obviously my budget can’t compete with San Francisco Travel’s budget or Visit Sacramento, Napa, none of them,” Reeves said.

Some destinations have reached their growth ceiling by virtue of their limited lodging capacity. Lake City hotels can’t take anymore reservations for the summer. “We hit that ceiling in terms of visitation capacity,” Hopson said. Lake City instead aims to grow visitation during its off peak winter season instead.

Secondary destinations received public exposure and this will carry on to lasting gains. Lake City has greater name recognition within Colorado, according to Hopson. Until the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for more out-of-state visitors than Denver residents to know of Lake City’s existence, and now that’s changed.

Vacaville has seen stronger engagement from its audience on its content. “I noticed more on our social media interaction and the opening of our newsletters and traffic to our site that clearly I think there’s a little more interest in in our city,” Reeves said.

Kalispell’s Medler said the hunger for nature in the American traveler to be stronger than ever and her destination is in a great spot for it. “They are still seeking out nature and the kind of vacation that gives them a really unique experience,” she said. 

Vacaville now aims to diversify its offerings and has been advocating for indoor sports facilities to support youth sport tournaments. “We’ve got San Francisco and Sacramento so close that the opportunity to be able to bring in a large number of sports tournaments is pretty great,” Reeves said. 


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Tags: coronavirus recovery, destination marketing, domestic tourism, outdoor tourism, outdoors, rural tourism

Photo credit: Rural and outdoor destinations are facing a slowdown in their visitor growth rates. Patrick Henry / Unsplash

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