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Alexis Brown is shown at work at the front desk of Hampton Inn in Thomson. The hotel’s general manager, Richard Harrington, said small town hotels are now doing better than ones in larger areas like Augusta.

In 2020, McDuffie County tourism felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as evidenced by a drop in hotel tax collections by more than one-third from 2019.

“We were 35 percent down from the previous year,” said Elizabeth Vance, executive director of the Thomson-McDuffie Convention & Visitors Bureau.

That is a reference to hotel tax dollars collected and paid to McDuffie County. She explained that on a hotel bill you will see three line items related to taxes. Those are the state tax, the occupancy tax which goes to the county, and a $5 per night Georgia State hotel fee, which generates money for the Georgia Department of Transportation. The occupancy tax collected for McDuffie County provides just a snapshot of the downturn, which likely will be reflected in a broader sense.

“Our total economic impact of tourism is more than hotel tax. It’s any money spent in the county by visitors, which would include eating in restaurants, shopping at businesses, even getting gas at our gas stations here,” Vance added. “That number comes to us from the US Travel Association, via the State of Georgia. We won’t get 2020 numbers until the end of 2021,” she said.

Vance said she anticipates that number, reflecting the whole impact of tourism dollars will be down in similar fashion to the tax proceeds.

“How much, I’m not sure. But, if I had to guess I would probably say it would be the same 35 percent that we are seeing in the hotel revenue as well,” she added.

Overall, tourism dollars have significant impact on the Thomson-McDuffie area. In 2019 the total impact on the local economy was $31.6 million, she said.

“Everything driving the negativity is Covid,” Vance said. “We would have had Masters patrons coming and staying at the hotels if we hadn’t had the pandemic. There would have been Blind Willie, there would have been more weddings, there would have been more of everything if there hadn’t been a pandemic going on.”

The community is now past 2020 but still amidst the pandemic.

What does Vance expect in 2021 as it relates to tourism?

“I’m expecting 2021 to be flat compared to 2020. I don’t expect it to look worse, but it’s not going to look better,” she said. “I don’t expect us to really be able to start pulling out of it until 2022.”

She said the return to normalcy will not really begin until the population starts to develop what medial experts call herd immunity. The tourism expert points out that the decline is travel is not caused by government mandates, but rather consumer choice.

“This isn’t leaders in our state or nation shutting down the economy. It’s consumers that have made the decision to not travel anymore because they don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s going to take people feeling comfortable getting out and doing those things again before things begin to get back to normal.”

Although many traditional hotels have suffered, in McDuffie County there are outdoor recreation opportunities which include Raysville Campground, the McDuffie Public Fishing area, and recreation activities around Clarks Hill Lake.

“The campground hasn’t suffered through he pandemic at all” she said.

Vance said she regrets that McDuffie County was not able to get Big Hart Campground reopened during 2020 because that was a missed opportunity. She said she has been told it is now expected to open sometime in February.

Although Raysville Campground stayed booked, campers are not charged the hotel tax. The loss of the hotel tax dollars also meant that in 2020 the Thomson-McDuffie Convention & Visitors Bureau faced challenges.

“It’s been tough to adapt to, but last year we were asked by the county to reduce our allocation because of what happened and that’s understandable,” she said. The result was she had to shift to different forms of marketing and keep costs down.

“We had planned on a new visitors’ guide and some new marketing materials right at the beginning of the year but we had to quickly pull those projects, at least for a while, because we didn’t know how much money would come in,” Vance said.

A digital marketing campaign started a few months before the campaign did continue to help encourage people to visit and use the campground and outdoor recreation activities. Vance, who has led the tourism efforts nearly 15 years, said this is not the first time the local economy has felt the impact of a downturn in tourism dollars. The housing crisis of 2008 and 2009 resulted in a decline in hotel and tourism dollars in 2010.

“It took a while for all of that to come back. I imagine this is going to be the same way,” Vance said. “It’s going to be a steady process of trying to get back to where we were before.”

Richard Harrington is the general manager of the Hampton Inn in Thomson. He also in late 2020 took on management responsibilities of the Comfort Inn. He said the hotels in the smaller towns are doing much better than those in larger areas.

“We are faring a lot better than Augusta. Our occupancy trumps what Augusta is doing right now so it looks like the smaller cities are seeing the people stay whereas the large cities have people still staying away from them,” he said.

While, according to occupancy tax, McDuffie County hotel business declined 35 percent, Harrington said his occupancy at Hampton Inn was only down 25 percent in 2020.

“In March, April and the beginning of May all the corporate business dried up. But once Kemp opened the state back up we never missed a beat. Even though Gov. (Brian) Kemp opened the state back up we still lacked the occupancy that we would have normally done,” Harrington said. “I feel we’re kind of lucky that we have Kemp and he kept the state open. Otherwise we would be in the same shape as out west and up north,” Harrington added.

He said leisure travel is still almost none existent, but corporate travelers have returned to Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn sees steady bookings by construction and other workers.

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