Capital Region

Return to normalcy expected for tourism, though gas prices and war pose threats

Members of the Albany Symphony perform on stage during the American Music Festival Sing Out New York from suffrage to stonewall, with conductor David Alan Miller, at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady on Saturday, June 7, 2019. The pandemic put tourism and events on hold. The Capital Region is hoping for a return to normalcy.
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Members of the Albany Symphony perform on stage during the American Music Festival Sing Out New York from suffrage to stonewall, with conductor David Alan Miller, at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady on Saturday, June 7, 2019. The pandemic put tourism and events on hold. The Capital Region is hoping for a return to normalcy.

Six weeks ago, management at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center in Lake George was hoping for a fewer-worries, no-masks kind of summer, with COVID concerns and restrictions the least since early 2020.

Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an upset to world oil prices that is reflected at the pump. The 192-room upscale hotel has responded by offering a $50 discount (“a tankful of gas”) on guests’ total room bills and further discounts to those who donate to the Ukrainian Red Cross.

“The fortunate thing with COVID is that we did really well the last two years,” said Tom Wysocki, the hotel’s marketing director. “We market to people from the city and New Jersey who were cooped up and looking to get out. … The summer is trending really well, but gas prices are a big concern.”

Even as a typical upstate winter refuses to totally relinquish its grip, March is when people start to dream of a warm day on the road, and maybe some beer and beach time.

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It is looking like the summer of 2022 will be the first “normal” summer in three years, with 2020 having been almost entirely undermined by the pandemic and 2021 also having felt COVID’s dark presence, though things were closer to normal.

COVID won’t be disappearing this summer, but there are broad indications that the situation is far better than it has been — the state in February dropped the indoor mask mandate, which had been in place most of the past two years, and hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID have plummeted since a brief winter surge.

The other big problem for the hospitality industry during the pandemic — finding enough help to hire — is also expected to improve this summer.

‘A human level’

A benefit of COVID-related international travel restrictions being eased is that places such as Lake George, which have traditional relied upon overseas students to take summer jobs, can again expect them to be able to get J-1 visas for travel. (About 1,000 J-1 visa workers came to Lake George each year prior to the pandemic, which caused a severe labor shortage.)

“We expect to see the return of many of them this year, though we are uncertain how the heartbreaking war in Ukraine will affect that number,” said Amanda Metzger, a spokeswoman for the Lake George Chamber of Commerce.

In the past, many of the foreign students coming to Lake George have been from eastern Europe, including Ukraine and Belarus, Metzger said, and business owners have developed long-term relationships with Ukrainians, so a number of businesses have contributed to relief efforts.

“It’s definitely hit home for our businesses, not just in terms of finding workers but on a human level,” she said.

Fort William Henry, where at least 20 Ukrainian students have worked in recent years, is donating a portion of food and room proceeds in March and April to Ukrainian humanitarian relief, and has already raised nearly $13,000, Wysocki said Friday.

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But while famed destinations like Lake George and Saratoga Springs have been tourist meccas for decades, tourism is also a big part of the economy for many other communities across the Capital Region and beyond.

Montgomery County, for example, has fresh appeal this year based on completion in 2021 of the Empire State Trail statewide bicycle trail system, which has included improvements to the long-established Erie Canalway Trail.

Fulton County, parts of which are inside the Adirondack Park, promotes itself as the land of “44 Lakes” — the well-known and enormous Great Sacandaga Lake being just one of them. Both counties are also rich in local history dating to before the American Revolution.

“I think we were lucky to have things open with limitations last year, and it will be great to have things open more back to normal this year,” said Ann Boles, director of tourism for the Fulton-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.

“I feel the outlook is great,” Boles continued. “Even with COVID, we had the advantage of our outdoor activities and natural beauty, and people taking advantage of our outdoor beauty and discovering new outdoor activities. Then they were going back and telling other people about it.”

A drive away

Schenectady County will be promoting its parks, concerts and outdoor attractions as well as destinations such as Proctors and Mohawk Harbor in city markets within a 3 1/2-hour drive, said Todd Garofano, executive director of Discover Schenectady. The Summer Night festival in downtown Schenectady will be back for the first time in three years.

“It will be as back to normal as possible. Everything is very positive for it being a great summer,” Garofano said.

Saratoga Springs, which saw a rebound last summer compared with the severely diminished crowds of 2020, is planning on a return to full normal.

For Saratoga, normal means the Saratoga Performing Arts Center having ballet and classical seasons, and Live Nation presenting a full schedule of concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Saratoga Race Course is also expecting a full racing season from mid-July through Labor Day, with no uncertainty — as there was a year ago — about attendance limits or masking requirements.

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Saratoga business leaders are expecting a full rebound in visitor levels — or even more than in pre-COVID times — given the possibility of bottled-up demand for travel if people have been fearful about travel in the past two years.

“We’re optimistic where Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County stand today with COVID-19 cases remaining very low, and vaccination rates remaining very high,” Darryl Leggieri, president of Discover Saratoga, said at a recent Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce event. Discover Saratoga markets the city and surrounding area as a tourism and convention destination.

Leggieri cited a recent Longwood International study showing that a pandemic-high of 92% of people who have traveled in the past are ready to make their travel plans in the next six months. “That’s significant, and we want to inspire them to visit Saratoga Springs,” he said.

The local business leaders in Saratoga said they were confident they can fill jobs and meet visitor demands, despite lingering supply shortages associated with the pandemic and fresh uncertainty created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This year we are able to plan effectively, and proactively hire for the summer season,” said Kevin Tuohy, general manager of the Holiday Inn on Broadway. “While I am of the opinion that it will be a challenging season and that I may not be able to get to the 80 full-time team members I would like, I am certain this will be a season where I have enough team members to comfortably service our guests needs.”

Back in Lake George, meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is reporting that winter 2021-2022 was one of the best in recent times for the resort community, where many businesses still shutter in the winter. The winter carnival was held and there was also a well-publicized Ice Castles attraction. “We even had tourists ask us, ‘What is there to do here in the summer?’ That was a first,” said Metzger, the chamber spokeswoman.

With its ready access to the southern Adirondacks and hospitality businesses following COVID protocols, Metzger said Lake George has had solidseasons the past two years, and advance bookings for 2022 are “very strong.”

The region can appeal to people who might not want to take a lengthy road trip or flight this year, Metzger said. “We are literally well-positioned again,” she said. “We are a tank [or less than] of gas away from several major cities.”

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