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.

Pearland, Galveston and Greater Houston-area 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 a year later, the city of Galveston saw hotel occupancy tax collections dip by 15 percentage points during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the city’s collections during that same time period exceeded 2019 rates.

Pearland’s hotel tax revenue collections have recovered more slowly than in Galveston, but were up about 3% in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, according to convention and visitors’ bureau data.

While hospitality and tourism as a whole 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.

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

Galveston Park Board CEO Kelly de Schaun said the area’s healthy short-term rental market coupled with outdoor activities has spurred visitation this year and proven Texans consider vacations essential.

Meanwhile, interest in outdoor activities has increased in Pearland, particularly around birding and geocaching, said Tracy Rohrbacher, executive director of the Pearland Convention & Visitors Bureau. 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 while boosting area visitation.

Franz said while municipalities may be tempted to trim their recreation budgets, this is 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. “It really does lift all boats.”

The great outdoors

Pearland offers various ways to experience nature, including at the Delores Fenwick Nature Center on Magnolia Parkway. The nature center offers various programming for children and adults, including in-person and virtual field trips and other outdoor recreation programs, said August Vandiver, an outdoor recreation programmer with the city of Pearland.

Cycling has increased in popularity on both the nature center and city trails, Vandiver said. Other local businesses have also noted an uptick in residents purchasing birding gear, from wide-brimmed hats and binoculars to cameras, he said.

“Despite COVID, we’ve still seen quite a bit of attendance and interest in our programs,” he said.

Outdoor activities that can be visited at the convenience of tourists, such as the Pear-Scape Trail and Pearland’s GeoTour, have also become popular, Rohrbacher said. The Pear-Scape Trail features 4-foot fiberglass pears painted by local artists and is meant to be a cultural tourism attraction, and the GeoTour website, which launched in June, allows participants to use navigational techniques and mobile devices to hide and seek containers, or geocaches.

New tourism horizons

Franz and de Schaun said the corporate sector of their respective markets has been the slowest to recover as companies continue to avoid 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.

Royal Caribbean International will begin sailing its Oasis-class ship, The Allure of the Seas, from Galveston beginning in November 2022. 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.”

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, lagoongoers can add sailboats to the list of rentable watercrafts at the facility. Visitation more than doubled in this summer compared to the previous year: 48,000 people visited in summer 2020 with opening day in mid-July, and more than 100,000 people visited the lagoon this season from May 28 to late August, officials said.

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

“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, who often patronize local businesses or take a road trip to Galveston, Man said.

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. Boardwalk businesses said they have had few to no issues attracting customers this summer, which is a change from the previous year.

Another well-known Pearland attraction is the Sri Meenakshi Temple. This replica of a Hindu temple is the only temple outside of India dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, the wife of Shiva, per Visit Pearland.

Vatsa Kumar, the temple’s public relations administrator, has been connected with the temple since it opened in 1978. The temple offers Pearland residents a glimpse into Indian life and culture, Kumar said.

“They do not have to go all the way to India to see and learn about the country,” Kumar said via email.

However, the 2021 summer tourism season was not one without challenges. Like many communities, Pearland is seeing staffing challenges at hospitality-centric businesses, Rohrbacher said.

“We’re monitoring the situation and will continue to focus on the ways visitors can safely experience Pearland,” she said.