Early signs point to a return of tourism to the Valley this summer

This delicate “bluet” flower, which unfurled this spring on Shenandoah Mountain, could be a metaphor for the area’s tourism industry as it seeks to emerge from the last year. (File photo)

By Isabela Gladston, contributor

Early tourism numbers in the Shenandoah Valley are pointing to a return to normal as destination spots like Massanutten Resort prepare for larger crowds. 

Visits to the Harrisonburg Tourism Bureau were up by 76% in May as compared to May 2020, said Jennifer Bell, Harrisonburg’s tourism manager. 

“We are seeing the trends where people really want destinations like ours that are charming, and people feel comfortable, and they’re not overly crowded,” Bell said. “We really have the perfect destination for what people are looking for right now, especially while people are still reluctant to travel or have some hesitations to do air travel.”

This trend aligns closely with a study conducted by booking.com which showed 53% of people planning trips prefer to travel domestically to low risk areas with lots of outdoor activities. 

In May alone, Harrisonburg’s Visitor’s Center at the Hardesty-Higgins House downtown had 3,800 people stop in, which is still short of 2019-level traffic, when the center averaged more than 4,000 visitors per month. But Bell said she is optimistic Harrisonburg will see its number of visitors increase this summer.

At the Massanutten Resort, Morgan Mowbray, the resort’s marketing manager, said more guests are booking lodgings. She said tourism is already heavier than last summer, and the resort made changes regarding mask restrictions and capacity limits on activities. 

The Massanutten Resort website outlines the protocols regarding advance bookings. Vaccinated visitors aren’t required to wear masks while using resort amenities, however, unvaccinated guests are expected to wear masks inside and in crowded areas outside.

“Like previous months, our capacity as far as activities is somewhat limited, so we do still encourage people to book in advance because some activities will sell out,” Mowbray said.

Because many people are looking for small, quaint destinations, Bell said the ability to physically distance is one reason for an uptick in visitors throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

Bell said some of the influx of out-of-town visitors can be attributed to JMU-related events, such as students’ family members attending the in-person graduation in early May, as well as sporting events and in-person conference/business meetings. 

In 2019, the U.S. Travel Association estimated that tourism spending in Harrisonburg totaled about $136 million. 

“It’s a huge part of our local economy and it’s really important that we see the visitors return,” Bell said.

Bell said she is hopeful that Harrisonburg will reach pre-pandemic tourism numbers despite reports she has seen saying the U.S. may not reach 2019 numbers for another year.

“It’s very possible we can get there,” Bell said.

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