As the travel and tourism industry begins its recovery following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Destination Cleveland released its visitation and economic impact report for 2021, showing a recovering Cuyahoga County about on pace with the state and the rest of the country.
With 16.1 million visits to the county for business and leisure travel, 2021 saw a 17% increase over 2020 which suffered a 30% loss due to the pandemic. This growth is well above the state of Ohio’s 9% rebound, but slightly trailing the U.S. domestic visitation growth rate at 28%.
“Overall, we were happy to see those (numbers),” David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, told the Cleveland Jewish News Oct. 11. “We certainly knew based on different indicators that we were going to see a strong bounce back in ’21 over ’19 and ’20, where the whole travel and tourism industry, not only in Cleveland but all around the country, was devastated. And I would say that we’re seeing some really good indicators that ’22 is also going to be a very good year.”
In fact, the goal is to return to pre-pandemic levels of visitors by early to mid-2024, and he said the job of the marketing and management organization is to make the county well-positioned and strategized the right way to grow ahead of the state and rest of the country. Prior to the pandemic, the county experienced nine straight years where the percentage growth in number of visits for leisure travel, business travel and convention travel was ahead of the state and nation.
To make this goal a reality, Gilbert said there will need to be collaboration.
“Our organization is the organization in Northeast Ohio that is charged with growing the travel and tourism economy, but we can’t do it alone, at all,” said Gilbert, a Moreland Hills resident and member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. “There’s so many critical partners along the way and we recognize that, and acting in concert with others is going to be critical.”
While business and convention travel to large cities was hit hard by the pandemic, many rural areas such as natural parks and even Hocking Hills in southern Ohio had record years as COVID-19 changed travel patterns, Gilbert said. Now, Cuyahoga County is seeing a return to booking meetings and conventions as well as leisure travel, which he calls “the bread and butter of Cleveland” with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, professional sports and the arts in the city.
“The slowest market to come back nationally and in Cleveland as well is business travel as virtual meetings have become more accepted, but I think at least in numbers anecdotally, it’s still continuing to grow even though slower than some other markets,” Gilbert said. “Nothing is going to fully replace meeting face to face.”
As visitation to Cuyahoga County begins to recover, so too can the economy. Travel and tourism accounted for nearly $5.4 billion in direct sales, contributing to a total economic impact of $9.3 billion; produced $3.1 billion in employment income for locals through about 64,000 jobs, about 7% of all jobs in the county; and generated $1.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes.
Further, when people visit Cleveland, their perception of the city changes and it is the best way to attract them to live and work here, contributing to the economy more.
“It’s more than just the dollars those people spend when they’re here,” Gilbert said. “It’s the fact that it gives us the best opportunity we have to shape their view of Cleveland.”