Chelsea Donoho/Painted Ladies Tour Co.
If this were a normal summer, tourists from all over the world would be vacationing in the United States. The U.S. welcomed almost 80 million international visitors in 2019, and July and August are two of the busiest months of the year for tourism across the country.
This year, of course, is different. COVID-related restrictions are still in place for visitors from a number of areas, including those in the European Union, the U.K, China, and India. These are some of the places that send the most tourists to the U.S. every year, and so small businesses are feeling that void.
“We have to look at what the consequences will be for the tourism industry if we don’t lift these restrictions,” says Roger Dow, who is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. He points out that the economic blow in the travel sector extends far beyond airlines and hotel chains.
“Eighty-three percent of travel is small businesses,” he says, “and American small businesses cannot hang on much longer.”
One such small business feeling the toll is the Painted Ladies Tour Co. in San Francisco, run by Virgine De Paepe and her husband, Josh Armel.
“We started this business about six years ago, with just one VW bus and a dream,” Armel says.
The name of their company is a nod to the city’s colorful Victorian houses and the couple’s unconventional tour vehicles: a fleet of seven brightly colored vintage Volkswagen buses with eyelashes.
“I wanted to make them into ladies instead of guys,” De Paepe says.
The couple says a third of their riders come from abroad — mostly Canada, Australia and the U.K. But as Armel points out, right now they are not seeing any of these international tourists due to travel restrictions. Traffic on their website is 99% domestic. In other words, international tourists aren’t even looking for them right now.
Drew Andersen/Grand Canyon Adventures
In Flagstaff, Ariz., Grand Canyon Adventures takes sightseers up to the south rim of the canyon.
“We can never make it more beautiful, but we feel like we add to the appreciation of what they’re seeing up there,” Korey Seyler, the company’s general manager, says.
He told NPR that in a normal summer up to 30% of his customers come from abroad. That international business has evaporated, but in its place, he’s seeing a new crop of domestic travelers who may be forgoing faraway summer vacations in favor of something closer to home. Others, he says, may simply crave the serenity of wide open spaces.
“This is something that people need to heal the human spirit,” Seyler says. “Getting into natural spaces, because they were cooped up for so long.”
In New York City, Victor Ortega, who manages a small, family-owned chain of restaurants called Black Iron Burger, was anticipating the arrival of international tourists this summer.
“We were hoping in July, they were going to open the borders,” he says, “but now with the new delta variant and all that stuff, it’s not really opening.”
In a typical summer, Ortega says 80% of his business comes from tourists.
“Right now,” he says, business is “nothing compared to what we used to get.”
His restaurants are now operating with a skeleton crew, and for Ortega, this situation feels personal. His wife and kids are back in Spain, where he’s from, and stuck in limbo until customers can return.
“I can’t really bring them back until things get better with the business, our salaries can get better and … [I] can afford to live in this city with a family,” he says.
So what does the future hold for international tourism and these small businesses? There’s still no date for reopening U.S. borders to travelers from restricted countries. Virgine De Paepe and Josh Armel from the Painted Ladies Tour Co. say they have their sights set on 2022. Meanwhile, Victor Ortega from Black Iron Burger still has some hope for this summer. As for Korey Seyler from Grand Canyon Adventures, he told NPR that he prefers to not speculate about the future, adding that “there is nobody out there who can crystal-ball when these restrictions are going to open up.”
Miguel Macias and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this story.