ROANOKE, Va. – With flight cancellations, restaurant closures and empty hotels, it’s no surprise the tourism industry was hit hard by the pandemic.
After organizing trips for 25 years, the coronavirus pandemic shut down Roanoke Tours Inc. in a blink of an eye.
“I never dreamed of it going down like at a snap of a finger… That’s the end,” Ernie Dale, president of Roanoke Tours Inc.
He remembers running out of checks trying to send hundreds of refunds back in one month.
Dale turned to side jobs to make ends meet and took out a $15,000 30-year loan for the first time.
“It was scary because I did not think I would be in debt at that age,” Dale said.
A scary moment for the region as hotel room revenue took a dive of about 45% in just one year.
“We employ well over 8,000 people and many of those people have lost their jobs or had their hours cut back substantially,” Visit Virginia Blue Ridge President Landon Howard said.
Roanoke Blacksburg Regional Airport is feeling the pressure too.
Empty parking lots and flights with only 25 passengers were tough images of the reality at the time.
“I’ll be honest it made you sick to your stomach,” Bradley Boettcher with Roanoke Blacksburg Regional Airport. “You were just like where is this going. How is this going to end?”
At the beginning of the pandemic, from March to April, the airport experience a dip in traffic by 97%.
Relying on business travel, the airport normally sees about 60%, but now, business travel is only about five to 10%.
However, both Boettcher and Howard said they are noticing a slow uptick and in a year or two, they hope to be back on track.
Howard said upcoming sporting events could help attract more travelers to the area giving them the push they need to get back on track.
Boettcher said with New York planning to lift their two-week quarantine travel restriction by April, more passengers might feel comfortable to hop aboard a flight.
Dale says he doesn’t think he will ever regain the success he had before the pandemic but hopes to one day make his own comeback.