Tourism in Ithaca is bouncing back after the heights of COVID-19


ITHACA, N.Y.—It’s no secret that Ithaca is a tourism hot spot, especially during the summer when the sun is shining, the waterfalls are rushing and everything is in bloom.

With the Finger Lakes towns and their respective gorges making many of the “what to do in New York State” and “best summer activities” lists, Ithaca draws thousands of visitors every year, starting with the bang of graduation weekend and this year, the return of the Ithaca Festival.

But, like the rest of the world, Ithaca saw far fewer tourists during the summer of 2020 due to COVID-19 as people stayed home and didn’t travel internationally or even domestically for much of the year, particularly during the normally busy spring and summer months.

Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) said that the organization receives constant feedback from downtown retail and restaurant businesses and that it had quickly become apparent that tourism had regained its speed after the summer of 2020 — “The bottom line is we’ve seen a pretty strong bounce back in visitor traffic from our peak of the pandemic.”

In its Strategic Tourism Plan for 2021 through 2027, the Tompkins County Tourism Department highlighted goals and focus topics with the purpose of increasing the amount of time visitors spend during trips to the area. Some of the more prominent goals listed are to increase the average trip length to three to four nights; increase average visitor spending by 5% (from $366 to $384); add year-round indoor and outdoor programming; and increase collaboration between local tourism partners and businesses.

Room tax, of particular note as it is the main funding method for tourism programs locally, has a 5% rate charged with every hotel room and Airbnb booked. In the first quarter of 2022, $383,989 was collected — more than twice what the same timeframe in 2021 yielded ($167,311). Brett Bossard, chair of the Strategic Tourism Planning Board said that 2022’s room tax thus far wasn’t expected to that extent, but that it shows a volume increase in tourism returning.

“We benefit from a lot of different factors being where we are located,” he said. “We’re a relatively easy drive from a number of large metropolitan areas, […] and up until very recently, other forms of travel, like air travel, were not as appealing because of the health concerns.”

Projected room tax for the entirety of 2022 is $2.4 million, even with occupancy being assumed in the budget at 20% of what it was in 2019. In 2019, Tompkins County collected $2.9 million in room tax, dropping to $1.2 million for the entire 2020 year.

In its annual report from 2020, Visit Ithaca found that visitors spent $229.8 million in 2019. Similarly, in 2020, $230 million was spent, though the total for 2021 is not yet reported.

A 2019 visitor profile report from Visit Ithaca and the Tompkins County tourism found that 76% of visitors are repeaters, primarily traveling as a couple or with children. Seventy-eight percent stayed overnight with 22% visiting for a day trip, and the overnight visitors stayed on average between two and three nights, mostly at hotels or inns.

Of the visitors surveyed in the 2019 report, the Commons, Ithaca Farmers Market, Buttermilk Falls, Robert H. Treman and Taughannock Falls state parks were among the most visited locations in town.

According to the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s pedestrian counters for foot traffic, the Commons saw 1.6 million visits between May 2019 and 2020 — keep in mind that this timeframe is skewed as New York went on pause and shut down non-essential businesses from March 22 to May 26, 2020 — 991.6 thousand visits between May 2020 and 2021, and the beginning of recovery between May 2021 and 2022 with 1.637 million visits. During those timeframes, visitors to the Commons came back three to four times on average, so while that data does count overall visits, unique visitors are not distinguished.

Trips to the area (particularly the state parks listed above) help paint another partial picture of the number of visitors Ithaca sees. The 2020 data sticks out as a slightly abnormal trend likely because of individuals and families seeking things to do outdoors during that COVID summer as they were considered the safest activities.

As a baseline, in 2019, Buttermilk Falls saw 326,156, Treman saw 369,121 and Taughannock Falls saw 577,391 visitors. In 2020 (keep in mind the outdoor activities sentence from the above paragraph), Buttermilk saw 441,386, Treman had 444,124 and Taughannock had 606,202 visitors, according to the New York State parks website.

Last year, 2021, Buttermilk and Treman both had numbers similar to 2019: 378,350, and 358,536, respectively, but Taughannock saw a large bump from its 2019 number and an increase still from 2020 with 618,162 visitors throughout the year.

Visit Ithaca, one of the tourism bureaus in town, also reported that website traffic numbers in 2020 were down 14% for the year but tracked almost identically for the months of July through October, even with case numbers fluctuating — seeming to show that interest was there, even if actual visitation remained down.


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