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Opinion: State travel activity outperforming pre-pandemic levels

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The tourism industry in Missouri is a significant part of the state’s economy, attracting millions of visitors and contributing billions of dollars each year.

At the Missouri Division of Tourism, our goal is to bolster the state’s profile as a leisure destination through a robust marketing campaign that focuses on primarily Midwestern and Southern markets. Our messaging plays across TV, online video, streaming audio, digital, social, out-of-home, traditional radio and print platforms, and it reaches consumers from Chicago to Dallas and from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Shreveport, Louisiana.

In featuring the variety of our state – bustling metropolitan areas, charming small towns, outdoor adventures, cultural attractions and, of course, our outstanding food, music and hospitality – we show consumers how Missouri (or Mo for short) has something that fits their travel M-O.

This year has been interesting for travel because we are seeing a rebound in the number of visitors, hotel bookings and air travel after record-low numbers in 2020. However, with current inflation, economists are cautioning the nation is heading toward a recession, which can threaten the tourism industry as more consumers potentially reconsider their discretionary spending.

So, where does that leave Missouri’s tourism industry?

Overall, Missouri’s tourism industry is looking good. Lodging numbers are positive, with hotel occupancy rates increasing slightly January-May compared with the same time last year and an average daily rate of $116 per night, about 8% ahead of last year.

Tourism-related sales revenue for January through March reached $4.1 billion, a roughly 25% increase in tourism spending compared with 2019. Not only are we leaps and bounds ahead of the dismal reporting of 2020, we are outperforming pre-pandemic levels in some key areas.

Domestic leisure travel has nearly made a full recovery across the United States, and Missouri is no exception. Additionally, international travel is also showing signs that it has recovered in Missouri.

Based on spending data compiled through Visa, 440,000 international visitors traveled to the Show-Me State in 2022, compared with 213,000 in 2021 and 437,000 in 2019. Nationwide, inbound international travel has been rising at a slower rate and has not reached 2019 levels, putting Missouri ahead of the curve.

In southwest Missouri, 2023 has been a year of continued growth. Through April, tourism-related spending reached $775 million – up 25% compared with the same period in 2019. Additionally, the Springfield-Branson National Airport reported an increase of 6% in TSA throughput from January through May compared with the same months in 2019, which is well ahead of the national average. The area’s excellent tourist destinations continue to be a draw for travelers.

While a recession is forecast for the months ahead, economists believe it will be relatively minor and that the tourism industry is strong enough to withstand it.

Based on recent consumer sentiment data, it appears the demand for travel will remain high. This is due to several factors, some of which include consumers prioritizing spending on travel over durable and nondurable goods, hybrid and remote workers taking the opportunity to travel while working and the increase in retired individuals who have the time, income and interest to travel.

During the July Fourth holiday weekend, AAA estimates almost 950,000 people will visit Missouri – about 7% more than traveled for the holiday in 2019.

Other closer-to-home figures also tell us that travel is top of mind for many people. Page views on the department’s VisitMo.com are up about 12% over last year, visits to the state’s five Official Missouri Welcome Centers are up nearly 10% January-May over 2022, and travel guide orders are pacing about 31% ahead of 2022.

Although multiple factors – inflation, international conflict and weather, to name a few – can influence consumer sentiment, we are optimistic that Missouri will remain a top choice for domestic travel and that we will continue to see an increase in international visitors over previous years.

In addition, when visitors arrive in the Show-Me State, they’ll find an ideal vacation spot filled with outdoor recreation opportunities, fun attractions, incredible museums, delicious food and anything a traveler could want to create an unforgettable trip.

Stephen Foutes is the director of the Missouri Division of Tourism. He can be reached at directormotourism@ded.mo.gov.

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