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As Summer Nears, High Hopes (And Some Caution) For N.H.'s Tourism Industry

Annie Ropeik/NHPR
A sign in Alton Bay urges visitors to maintain social distance while enjoying the view, May 7, 2021.

As the warm weather continues, New Hampshire is preparing for its second summer in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. But state tourism officials say they're optimistic that this summer will be better - and safer - than last year.

Related story: As COVID Restrictions Lift On N.H. Businesses, Many Have No Big Plans To Change

NHPR's Annie Ropeik has been talking with people in the Lakes Region who are optimistic, too. She joined All Things Considered host Emily Quirk.

Emily Quirk: So you were out with Gov. Sununu and state tourism officials in Franklin on Friday, at a new riverside park that's under construction there, kicking off the summer season. What's their message?

Annie Ropeik: Well, they're hoping for a great season. They would like to match or exceed 2019 levels of tourist visitation and revenues. And I'm told that that was a very good year, top two or three for the state. We were really on the upswing kind for our tourism industry here, among our biggest industries. And the pandemic interrupted that.

I think the state is very proud of how it powered through and managed to keep some things open during COVID with health guidelines in place. But they're really hoping that 2021 will be the big reopening. As we've heard, all of the state health guidelines become voluntary today; they become “best practices” rather than mandatory rules. And so they're leaving it to businesses to decide how they want to handle the season, but really hoping to see a lot of visitation from surrounding states. They're emphasizing road trips and marketing in particular to not just our typical surrounding states, New England, and New York that we usually kind of attract, but also the mid-Atlantic, Ohio, out to a 600 mile radius is where they're marketing the New Hampshire road trip as their big thing for this summer. So they're very optimistic and really talking about this as if they're ready to put COVID behind them.

Quirk: Well, so how does this line up with the reality of the pandemic right now?

Ropeik: Well, it's a really tricky balance. And you are hearing state officials try to strike that. You know, it's a dual message of, “come visit New Hampshire!” but also “be safe at the same time.” And they're hoping that these voluntary guidelines will help ensure that. You can hear Governor Sununu kind of trying to do that here.

Sununu: “So because our vaccine distribution has gotten so fast, it allows us a little more opportunity than other states to kind of open things up, rely on that personal responsibility and individual choice in terms of, you know, what they're going to do with masks and social distancing. We want to always encourage that as much as we possibly can, both indoors and with folks that you don't know. But given that the vast majority of Granite Staters will be fully vaccinated in just a matter of weeks, we're really there and we're really open for business.

Ropeik: And so, he feels the state is making the right call and doing that faster than certain other states and that that's going to work out for tourism-dependent areas this summer when they need the revenue really badly. The statewide mask mandate is no longer in effect. You don't have to wear a mask, but it's still a good idea, he says. And I think people I've been talking to you were kind of expecting that from some visitors: that people may err on the side of caution even if they're traveling.

But they're also really hoping and relying on a lot of vaccinations too, as you heard the governor say. But of course, you just don't necessarily know who's been vaccinated. And so that is the really tricky balance the state is trying to strike.

Quirk: You also spent some time today talking with people in the Lakes Region, business owners and locals, about their expectations for the coming summer. What are you hearing?

Ropeik: It's definitely guarded enthusiasm and, similarly to the state officials, this real readiness to put COVID in the rearview mirror. They don't feel 100 percent sure that we're quite there yet, but they're really hoping we get there soon.

I visited Alton Bay, a somewhat more conservative part of the state, a place that has really embraced the idea of personal choice for businesses to set their own rules beginning now as we begin to kind of transition out of the pandemic. They’re also relying a lot on that outdoor recreation and those sort of spaces that are safer to social distance and not wear masks already to kind of get them through.

I talked to David Shibley at that family's ice cream stand in Alton Bay, and he is one of the businesses that's keeping some safety measures in place for their staff, but definitely feeling optimistic for a strong summer overall.

Shibley: Hopefully, COVID stays down and hopefully everybody gets vaccinated as soon as possible. I'm fully vaccinated. Most of the staff here is fully vaccinated. So hopefully it all comes together and that everybody's happy and safe and healthy.

Ropeik: And for that idea, hoping for the best is really the key that I heard from most people in Alton. Last summer was actually a lot better than I think they expected. But they want to build on that and they're hoping for an even better 2021. And they are very ready to put the past year behind them just as best as they can.

Before becoming Program Director, Quirk served as NHPR's production manager. During that time she's voiced and crafted the 'sound of the station,' coordinated countless on-air fundraisers, produced segments for Give Back NH, Something Wild, New Hampshire Calling, and developed NHPR's own NHPR Music vertical with features such as Live from Studio D, and long-loved favorites like Holidays By Request.
Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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