Galveston County’s residents and visitors frequented area restaurants, stores, outdoor attractions and other landmarks at record-breaking rates this summer as the region’s tourism industry adapted to COVID-19.

League City, Galveston and Greater Houston tourism experts said activity is at or above levels in 2019, which was also a record-breaking year. Comparing October 2018 through June 2019 to the same time period in 2020, League City and the city of Galveston saw hotel occupancy tax collections dip by 15% to 37%. In 2021, collections during the same time period exceeded 2019 rates in Galveston and were up 30% from 2019 collections in League City.

While hospitality and tourism were hit hard by the pandemic and some sectors of the industry are slower to recover, experts said they are optimistic as people rediscover their love of the outdoors and revisit old favorite places.

“It’s been a solid improvement,'' Greater Houston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau President Jorge Franz said of the metropolitan area’s tourism recovery. “In many ways, it's really showing that we can compete on a much bigger level as a leisure destination as a whole.”

Galveston Park Board CEO Kelly de Schaun said the area’s healthy short-term rental market, coupled with a variety of available outdoor activities, have spurred visitation in 2021 and proven Texans consider their vacations to be essential.

Meanwhile, League City tourism has also benefited from the variety of outdoor options, with the city’s fall birding series runs through mid-October. Additionally, master-planned community Lago Mar started a sailing club in July at its Lagoonfest Texas, which officials said will provide new experiences for sailors of all abilities while boosting area visitation.

While Franz said municipalities may be tempted to trim recreation and leisure budgets, this is actually the time to invest in local tourism. This involves cross-promoting between cities and creating experiences for consumers, particularly since Houston is known for its culinary options, he said.

“The reason that we do this is because this generates visitors to our area ... who use our Ubers, stay in our hotels, go to our restaurants,” he said of the importance of tourism to local economies. “It really does lift all boats.”

The great outdoors

Stephanie Polk, who manages League City’s convention and visitors’ bureau and is the board president of the Bay Area convention and visitors’ bureau, said travel has become less concentrated in bigger cities during the pandemic. Drivers may not even notice leaving one Bay Area city and entering another, making it essential for neighboring towns to promote nearby options and keep visitors in the area, Polk said.

“People have gone outdoors in droves to look for rural towns and new experiences and destinations to find and create their own new path,” she said. “We need to definitely consider that. It benefits small-town Texas for sure.”

While many Houstonians are aware of what Galveston and its beaches offer, not many realize the outdoor opportunities available in the Bay Area, Polk said.

The Bay Area’s convention and visitors’ bureau officials spent the spring and summer introducing the League City community to birding with classes and guided field trips, which kicked off in mid-August and run through Oct. 11. These events were successful in part due to their social-distancing friendliness, she said.

Locally geared food tours, a water recreation guide and culinary and craft brewing partnerships are in the works, Polk added.

Tourism is also shifting on Galveston Island this fall as children head back to school, but the rise in popularity of homeschooling and non-traditional education schedules has opened new doors for combining entertainment and education in Galveston, de Schaun said. Places like Moody Gardens, the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA and Moody Mansion offer students the chance to both learn and have fun.

Franz, Polk and de Schaun all said the corporate sector of their respective markets has been the slowest to recover, since companies are avoiding large conferences and meetings. This sector of area tourism is not likely to recover until mid- to late 2023, they said.

In the meantime, Galveston will also benefit from the restart of cruise travel and the $125 million Royal Caribbean terminal being built in the Port of Galveston’s Pier 10. Crews broke ground on the project in mid-August.

Royal Caribbean International will begin sailing its Oasis-class ship, The Allure of the Seas, from Galveston beginning in November 2022, per the port’s website. Businesses have already reported an uptick in traffic since the terminal was announced, de Schaun said.

“For Galveston and for our colleagues right across the causeway, ... the sensation of the cruise ships was an impact for hotel nights around the area,” de Schaun said. “That gives us cause for optimism.”

Safe sailing

While some sailors frequent the waters of Galveston Bay, locals and area visitors now have another option for the sport in Texas City.

With the opening of Lago Mar’s National Sailing Club, lagoon goers can add sailboats to the list of rentable watercrafts at the facility. Visitation more than doubled in summer 2021 compared to the previous year: 48,000 people visited in summer 2020, with opening day in mid-July, and more than 100,000 people have visited the lagoon this season from May 28 to late August, per Lago Mar officials.

It cost about $500,000 to construct the dock system, boat ramp and concierge area that make up the sailing club facility, said Lagoon Development Company’s CEO Uri Man. Man told Community Impact Newspaper the addition of the club will provide the public with new experiences in a safe environment as well as boost area tourism.

The club was created to provide residents with a venue to try new things by taking sailing lessons, renting sailboats, kayaking and renting paddle boards, he said.

“We’re bringing in tourism from all over Houston and beyond,” Man said. “That’s important for the area because it brings more business.”

Lago Mar partnered with two hotels, both less than 5 miles from the lagoon, to offer discounted rates to out-of-town guests. These guests are often patronizing local restaurants and stores, shopping at the nearby Tanger Outlets shopping center, picking up souvenirs at the Texas City Buc-ee’s or taking a road trip to Galveston, Man said.

Sailing lessons range from two hours of private instruction to camps for children and teens, group learn-to-sail courses for adults and topic-specific clinics. Learning to sail in a lagoon environment can also help assuage safety concerns, Man said: Learners do not have to worry about marine life, large waves or rip currents as they would during open-water instruction.

“It's a pretty unique opportunity to see families learning how to use the water sports equipment,” Man said. “Those types of memories and bonding experiences—they’re memories that are irreplaceable.”

Businesses adapt

Aside from the Lone Star Flight Museum and Space Center Houston, the Kemah Boardwalk is a top attraction in southeast Houston, Franz said. Some businesses on and near the boardwalk have had no issues attracting customers this summer, which is a change from the previous year.

“Tourism has increased just exponentially,” said Rahman Frost, property general manager at the Aquarium Restaurant, when comparing summer 2020 to summer 2021. “Because we are a tourist attraction, people [have wanted] to come out as a group.”

The restaurant and aquarium has seen larger parties as families and friends go out to eat in larger groups, many seeing each other for the first time in a while, Frost said. Visitation has at least tripled from last summer to this summer, he said, and the 20-year industry veteran called 2021 “the busiest summer ever.”

Jessica Holcomb opened her boutique, The Salty Biatch, in June less than half a mile from the boardwalk. She planned initially to focus on the apothecary and candle offerings but expanded to include apparel and other experiences as some of Kemah’s boutiques did not survive the pandemic, she said.

“The summer was packed down here in Kemah,” she said.

However, the 2021 summer tourism season was not one without challenges. Businesses have had to adapt to changing public health guidelines as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads through the county, Polk said.

“The recent delta variant has definitely triggered people to be more cautious,” Polk said, noting Kemah attractions in particular have seen more patrons wearing masks indoors again. “We’ve had to shift really fast, but [we have] to learn how to do that.”