There was a time when spring and summer in San Antonio meant a River Walk flowing with sun-soaked tourists and salty margaritas, theme parks bustling, festivals every weekend, and hotels booked across the city.

But that was before the need to control the spread of coronavirus led to travel restrictions, social distancing, and lockdowns – protective measures that have laid siege to this city’s third-largest industry: tourism.

Since the beginning of March, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in $99 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy, according to analysis by Tourism Economics.

That figure is on track to grow to half a trillion dollars by the end of 2020, nine times worse than the losses experienced after 9/11.

One of the first major dominoes to fall within San Antonio’s tourism sector was low attendance for a major writer’s conference at the convention center in early March. Only 40 percent of scheduled attendees showed up.

Then came a daily round of calls to cancel meetings and hotel stays as business travelers around the world were told only essential travel would be allowed, and families nixed their spring break plans.

Convention planners called Visit San Antonio to cancel future meetings. Hotels that were usually 95 percent booked began to lay off workers and turn off the lights. Government orders shuttered restaurants and attractions where policymakers worried large gatherings could spread the virus.

Museums like the Witte and The Doseum closed during their busiest time of the year, when schools take spring break and when a large percentage of visitors come from out of town. The Witte’s Mays Family Center lost 42 event bookings.

Also on March 13, officials postponed San Antonio’s biggest party of the year, Fiesta, from April 16-26 to Nov. 5-15. Fiesta’s series of events and parades annually attracts about 2.5 million people, 625,000 who live at least 50 miles outside of San Antonio.

Spring had come for San Antonio’s tourism industry, but so did a coronavirus outbreak that has rocked the entire economy. And things may not simmer down enough by this June and July for an industry that has an annual impact of $15.2 billion on the local economy.

The City of San Antonio has estimated it will garner $53.4 million to $83 million less in revenues this year from the airport, the hotel occupancy tax, and the convention center and Alamodome.

Nationwide, travel spending has plunged. At least 90 percent of those surveyed having some type of activity planned before the COVID-19 outbreak cancel or postpone, according to survey data from MMGY Travel Intelligence.

In March, San Antonio hotels experienced a 21.6 percent decrease in the room rate (the rate a hotel charges for a night), said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit SA. “Then our room demand fell 46.9 percent. That resulted in room revenue plunging nearly 60 percent compared to the same time last year. That was a major blow from that standpoint.”

Cassandra Matej

Hotel stays not only contribute to hotel occupancy taxes, they also translate to more business for restaurants, attractions, and shops, as well as sales tax revenue and jobs, Matej said.

Visit SA, which is funded mostly by the hotel occupancy tax, has already cut its budget by 30 percent for this year. On April 23, due to decreased tax revenues from the city’s visitor venues, including the airport and hotels, the City furloughed 260 people, many of whom worked at the Henry B. González Convention Center and sports facilities.

“It’s devastating,” Matej said. Her organization is now looking ahead and shifting its focus.

For instance, the Visit SA staff is urging convention planners to postpone, rather than cancel, future meetings. So far, the tourism bureau has had 22 city-wide conventions canceled at a cost to the city of $74 million, Matej said, and 28 in-hotel meetings canceled at a cost of $15 million. But others are postponing.

Two events planned for March have been rescheduled to August. And the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals Association, which had planned to bring more than 5,000 of its members here in late June, have rebooked for late October. That event was expected to have a $7 million impact on the local economy.

“Even if their attendance is down, compared to what they thought it would be, we would rather them come in, and let’s get the economy moving again, versus cancel altogether,” Matej said. “There are hotels that are getting some reservations starting in June and beyond, but it is so hard to forecast because I think people are waiting.”

Some hotels, however, have closed entirely, at least temporarily, including the Grand Hyatt, the Mokara, the Crockett, the Marriott Plaza, the St. Anthony, the Omni La Mansion del Rio, the Hyatt Hill Country Resort, the JW Marriott, the Landmark Embassy Suites, the Westin Riverwalk, and La Cantera Resort.

Data from the hospitality analytics firm STR shows that occupancy in the nation’s hotels was at 23 percent during the week of April 14-20, with the lowest occupancies recorded in Oahu Island, Hawaii; Miami; New York City; and Seattle.

Layoffs have followed; Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, furloughed thousands. By the end of April, declines in travel are expected to cause 8 million jobs to be lost out of approximately 24 million, stated a report by the U.S. Travel Association.

In San Antonio, one in seven workers is employed in hospitality, or more than 140,000 people. And statewide unemployment claims for the week ending April 11 stand at 30,556 in the accommodation and food services industry alone.

Matej said the pandemic is forcing Visit SA to focus on its drive market – attracting more visitors from other parts of the state and the region that are within driving distance.

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“Part of our relaunch is going to be including locals and having staycation opportunities,” she said. “We’re working with all of our partners … attractions, museums, hotels, and we’re going to have some great packages for San Antonio to enjoy. Because … sometimes you forget about all the wonderful amenities in your backyard.”

David Strainge, president and owner of City Sightseeing San Antonio, which operates double-decker bus tours of downtown San Antonio, closed down his business March 18, even though a decline in ridership began two weeks before, he said.

“It was virtually nothing,” Strainge said. “So the money we normally [make] during March, April, May, and put in the bank for the lean months of the late summer and then winter, is not going to be there.”

Strainge hasn’t yet received any funds from the Paycheck Protection Program loan he applied for, and he isn’t sure he will reopen anytime soon. “I need a certain amount of people out there in order to take the bus … so there’s no point in opening our doors and operating if there’s nobody to get on the buses,” he said.

In the meantime, Strainge is focused on marketing to hometown visitors. He announced Friday he plans to give away 1,000 tour passes to residents of Bexar and Comal counties to use when the business reopens.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.