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Cleveland Tourism, On The Rise Before COVID-19, May Not Recover Until 2024

White Cleveland script sign stands in front of a harbor. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Great Lakes Science Center and Cleveland skyline are in the background.
Tourism was up in 2019, but is expected to take a severe hit in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of visitors to Cleveland was on the rise in 2019, according to Destination Cleveland, bringing 19.6 million people to the area. But the coronavirus pandemic has likely put an end to almost a decade of growth in the local tourism industry.

Cleveland visitors rose by more than 2 percent from 2018 to 2019, surpassing national tourism rate of 1.1 percent. Those visitors brought in more than $6 million dollars in direct sales, according to a Tuesday press release from Destination Cleveland, and had an overall economic impact of nearly $10 billion dollars.

But the industry expects to see a 47 to 67 percent drop in visits in visits for 2020, the release said, leading to a loss of 56 to 75 percent in direct spending. Current efforts to aid local businesses, such as the Clean Committed program and other initiatives aimed at driving business, depend on the comfort levels of individuals during the pandemic, said CEO David Gilbert.

“Everything we’re talking about, whether it’s information or promoting to locals or as we’re starting to move back to out-of-towners, it’s all about comfortability,” Gilbert said.

The local tourism industry isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity until around 2024, Gilbert said, although Cleveland’s has grown faster than the national industry and may recover sooner.

“There’s going to be a longer-term recovery from the industry, because it’s not just about a vaccine, it’s not just about therapeutics, whatever medical measures might get us to the other side of this, but also knowing psychology plays so much into this,” he said.

The region had been working toward a goal of 20 million visitors by 2020, Gilbert said. Between 2011 and 2019, he said, visitor numbers rose 31.5 percent. Destination Cleveland will do Research over the next few months will help Destination Cleveland set new and reasonable goals as recovery continues, Gilbert said.

“We are going to get on the other side of this, and we need to be strategizing now not only for how we get through this but how we build the industry back,” Gilbert said. “Our hope in all this is that we help more businesses make it through what’s probably going to be a difficult winter with the pandemic still happening, more people being inside.”