McHENRY — While Garrett County has experienced a boom in tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rest of Maryland is struggling to recover.
While the state’s tourism industry as a whole experienced a 64% decline during the pandemic, Garrett County actually posted a 36% increase from pre-pandemic levels, according to Liz Fitzsimmons, managing director of the Office of Tourism for the Department of Commerce.
“Garrett County was the anomaly,” Fitzsimmons said. “The only region, the only county that was able to do this.”
In 27 years with the Office of Tourism, Fitzsimmons said the Office of Tourism never had to go before any group and say that there were decreases. That changed in 2020, when the industry was dealt a severe blow.
Sales figures for overnight stays in hotels, motels and rental units are key indicators of the state of tourism, she said, as those visitors spend money in other areas, such as food, entertainment, recreational activities and retail items.
For the category of hotels, motels, apartments and cottages, sales figures for the 2021 fiscal year totaled $56.05 million — a 56% drop from pre-pandemic 2019’s $128.6 million. For hotels and motels selling food, the results were even worse: from $35.4 million in 2019 to $10.7 million in 2021. That constitutes a 69.7% drop.
The Garrett County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual tourism update Tuesday morning at its Business Before Hours meeting, hearing from state officials just how hard the pandemic hit Maryland recreation.
“I last attended this meeting two years ago,” said Tom Riford, assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce’s Division of Tourism, Film & the Arts. “What a different world it was two years ago to today. Just totally, totally different.”
Riford said tourism is the fourth-largest industry in the state, employing people, providing tax revenue and helping the quality of life.
“Maryland’s tourism industry was especially hard-hit in March of 2020. And the last 20 months has seen the tourism industry working together to move forward to get to the other side,” he said. “I’m very proud of what was accomplished in this county in 2020, and in 2021. You led the state.”
The Wisp Resort’s ski school in 2021 had its best year since it opened in 1955, he said.
In continuing with the Autumn Glory Festival through the pandemic, Garrett County “has shown many other jurisdictions that it can move forward, and move toward a positive tomorrow,” Riford said.
Garrett County’s accommodation sales would have been even higher, but Gov. Larry Hogan had ordered the closing of hotels and motels at the start of the outbreak. When they were allowed to reopen, rooms and houses throughout the Deep Creek Lake area were rented almost immediately. Many were people who were seeking to leave areas of Maryland and Virginia that were experiencing early rises in COVID-19 cases.
That has spilled over into the Garrett County real estate market, where home sales have been strong for months, with houses now averaging $431,461.
However, those same eager visitors now have other options, Fitzsimmons said, with borders reopening and international travel now possible.
Six of the 10 richest counties in the United States are located in Northern Virginia, she said, and those are the customers that Garrett County needs to continue to attract — even as options such as Europe are now available again.
“They are the people who helped drive these increases,” Fitzsimmons said, encouraging business owners to reach out and continue to develop the relationships they’ve developed with visitors during the pandemic.