Alachua County tourism rising to pre-COVID levels, but omicron could jeopardize that

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Cornelia Holbrook has struggled to bring her inn to where it was before the pandemic.

“It’s been very, very difficult since COVID started,” said Holbrook, who owns Sweetwater Inn on East University Avenue in Gainesville, “but it has started to pick back up.”

Gainesville tourism has been increasing, said Jessica Hurov, tourism development manager for Visit Gainesville – Alachua County, part of the Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau. But coronavirus variants like delta and omicron could threaten that progress.

Omicron is a highly mutated form of coronavirus, and makes up about 3% of COVID-19 variants in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated on Dec. 11. President Joe Biden has expressed concern, but said the variant was “not a cause for panic,” according to the New York Times.

Holbrook said business has been inconsistent since the pandemic, specifically in August and September of this year, when the delta variant became more of a threat. And with buzz about a new, more dangerous variant, she said she is nervous.

“We’re hoping that we’ll get back to pre-pandemic levels,” she said. “And I’m not sure that that’s going to be possible with the variant going the way it is.”

Alachua County has had a great year for tourism, though, Hurov said. In 2019, the county made $114 million in lodging revenue, an all-time high. In 2020, that number decreased to $93 million. For fiscal year 2021, it’s up to $107 million, a 15.26% increase from last year.

Hurov said she expects tourism to continue growing. In fact, September and October of 2021 generated $25 million, the second highest figure for a two month period, she said. The same period in 2020 hit only $12 million.

Still, the bureau did see impacts on tourism because of concerns about the delta variant.

“When the numbers started getting really bad, we started slumping again,” Hurov said. “We have seen that – it following that same kind of curve.”

She said she is optimistic tourism dollars will not fall off again because of omicron.

“We don’t have a crystal ball, but things have been very strong the past few months,” she said.

Nan Charland, co-owner of The Laurel Oak Inn Bed and Breakfast on Southeast Seventh Street in Gainesville, was also positive. Business has been slowly returning to normal, Charland said, and recent weekends at her inn have been even busier than they were prior to the pandemic.

The biggest change has been that people are not booking rooms very far in advance. Most people make reservations only two to four weeks out, Charland said.

“Things are picking back up,” she said. “We’re happy about that.”

Charland isn’t too worried about omicron or other variants just yet.

“I think we’ll be OK,” she said.

About Nora O'Neill

Nora is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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