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Dekalb County travel takes hit in pandemic

After decades of moving around the country doing tourism work, John Dersham,  president/CEO of Dekalb County Tourism and resident “nature buff”, ended up in north Alabama.  After discovering his “paradise”, Dersham’s career is focused on telling the world all about the things he loves about the area.

He now works to persuade travelers to come visit the national parks, cultural sites, and small businesses that Dekalb County offers.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed travel to almost a halt.  Worries about transmission of the illness have prompted travel bans both domestically and internationally. The impact has been major in Dekalb County and other Alabama counties who depend on tourism to shape their economy. 

Dekalb County has about 30,000 acres of public land used for hiking, zip-lining, and other outdoor activities. Additionally, the county is home to Little River Canyon National Preserve and two state parks, Buck’s Pocket State Park and Desoto State Park.

These parks are home to waterfalls of nationally recognized beauty, including one of the state’s tallest waterfalls, Desoto Falls, which reaches heights of 104 feet. They also offer winding rivers, trails for hiking in the mountain ranges, wildflower expeditions, and camping sites.

Much of the outdoor space in Dekalb County, like Buck’s Pocket State Park, also holds great historical significance as land that used to be inhabited by Native Americans of the Cherokee tribe before the Trail of Tears.

This rich diversity in the natural world of Dekalb County typically brings in international tourists as well as visitors from across the nation because, according to Dersham, it is “one thing we have that is significantly different from the rest of the world.”

However, Dersham said, in 2020, the pandemic has “financially wiped us out.” One reason for this is that travelers would normally book a room in a hotel for their stay, which would contribute to the hotel lodging tax that funds the tourism departments across the state.

He explained that COVID-19 created a situation where tourists are day-tripping to parks in the area instead of staying overnight. At this point in the year, Dersham noted that hotel capacity rates should be around 75 to 100%.

But, he added, “Statewide, we are at 50% instead of 75-100%.” This affects the local economy, as travelers are now much less likely to spend money at local businesses or restaurants. The increase in day-time visits to the park, at the same time, makes social distancing difficult to maintain and overworks park employees.

Dersham said that businesses in the area, as well as the tourism board, are “managing our way through it.” He said many were able to take advantage of the federal paycheck protection loan to keep their employees paid.

Without that support, Dersham said, “We would be spending money we did not have” in order to ensure employees were taken care of during this time.

Businesses and restaurants are also getting creative with their tactics for staying open, including offering curbside and take out services, as well as imaginative displays and marketing efforts. 

Money is not the only thing that the county is losing to COVID. All of the county’s eight major festivals that would have been held during the first half of 2020 were canceled. And, the county’s annual Boom Day Heritage Celebration, a cultural event held in September to celebrate the advancements of the county through the years, has been preemptively canceled as well.

This creates a unique challenge for Dersham and the other employees of Dekalb Tourism. He said that when tourism is what you do for living it is difficult to tell “people to stay home.”

However, he does believe in the need for Americans to take precautions. Dersham said that Dekalb County Tourism is following CDC and government guidelines about COVID safety precautions.  Still he worries that the crisis “could cost us our business” if not handled with care.

Looking ahead, Dersham said, “We will never quite go back to doing things the way they were.” As more Americans have been staying closer to home as a result of the pandemic, he expects a “shift in culture” with more online gatherings and meetings.

Could tourism ever become more virtual? According to Dersham, “Tourism is a people industry.” One day, he expects we will be off to more great in-person adventures around our world.