Story at a glance

  • Cities are moving to incentivize tourism by offering money to visitors.
  • Coronavirus lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines crippled the tourism industry.
  • According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel spending dropped 42 percent from 2019 to 2020, and hotel occupancies in 2020 were 33 percent lower than in 2019.

Following the lockdowns and quarantines that have decimated the tourism industry, some tourist cities have found a unique but simple way to entice visitors: cold, hard cash.

Across the United States, big cities and small towns alike rely on tourism to boost and support their local economies. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and mandatory travel quarantines in some states, along with a general fear of catching the coronavirus, largely shuttered local tourism.

One city that experienced this firsthand was Redmond, Wash., Microsoft’s headquarters. Washington was one of the first states reported to have documented cases of COVID-19. 


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On March 4, 2020, Microsoft recommended its employees, numbering in the tens of thousands, should begin to work remotely. As additional companies in the area began to take similar measures, a ripple effect was felt in the area’s local businesses that relied on the patronage of the workers, as well as tourists who would travel to see the Microsoft campus.

“The hotels went from 65% to 85% occupancy range, down to single digits. So, you know, 6% or 9%,” Peter Klauser, the tourism manager for Experience Redmond, told the Guardian. “There were times when one hotel might have even had just one guest in the entire hotel.”

According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel spending dropped 42 percent from 2019 to 2020, and hotel occupancies in 2020 were 33 percent lower than in 2019.

Little changed in the following months as the coronavirus pandemic raged on, but as vaccines have become available, businesses are scrambling to find ways to reignite tourism and local economies.

While brainstorming with his coworkers, Klauser jokingly said, “Why don’t we just give them the money, you know, pay them, give them some cash.” Despite throwing the idea out there in humor, last month the city launched the “You Stay, We Pay” initiative.

Under this program, the first 500 visitors who spend two or more nights at a participating hotel will receive $100 worth of “Geek Out Gold,” a gift certificate of community currency that can be used at local businesses.

And Redmond isn’t the only city cashing in.


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In central California’s Santa Maria Valley, a program was launched in February offering the first 500 visitors who booked a minimum two-night stay in a local hotel a $100 Visa gift card. 

“We’re still seeing the results of the future reservations for it. We’ve had a huge substantial uptick in engagement on our social platforms. I mean, it’s just been across the board a big win for us,” said Jennifer Harrison, tourism director of Visit Santa Maria Valley.

As more people are vaccinated, cities hope tourism will experience an uptick again. As of Thursday, 33.7 percent of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 19.9 percent were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Klauser said 750 nights had been booked and over $30,000 had been gifted to visitors in Richmond.

“This was intended to be a shot in the arm, a short-term tourism stimulation program,” he said. “But the momentum has been so great that we want to try to keep it going for a little longer if we can so that’s why we’re exploring options for a future phase of this.”


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Published on Apr 09, 2021