Road trips drive hopes for brisk tourism this holiday weekend

Leisure travel is picking up, but so are coronavirus numbers

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Carrying his 4-year-old son Killian on his shoulders, Dallas Tharp and his family, along with his wife's parents, load up in a van at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday. The family was traveling from the Midwest to North Georgia for a family reunion.

For their Kansas-to-Georgia summer road trip in a rented van hauling three generations, Maureen Bell and her family packed the essentials.

"We've got hand sanitizer in the van, and we wear our masks," Bell said during a stop at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday afternoon with her four grandchildren, ages 1 to 5. "We're being careful."

Americans are far more likely to hit the roads than take to the skies this summer, according to AAA travel data, which is good economic news for the long Fourth of July weekend in cities like Chattanooga that tend to attract road trippers.

"Even though it won't be what it normally would be, we do think it's still going to be a very big weekend," said Barry White, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Company. "It potentially could be our biggest weekend of the year. We know it will be the biggest weekend since the year started."

While it's encouraging on the economic front to see groups beginning to venture out and visit area attractions, the prospect of large numbers of people on the move is tinged with apprehension as COVID-19 case counts increase, White added.

"We don't want to go backwards and shut down these businesses," White said. "The message from all the experts is wear the masks. It's just critical."

In Nashville, rising coronavirus numbers have prompted the mayor to order bars to close for a minimum of 14 days starting Friday, for restaurants, gyms and high-touch businesses to operate at 50% capacity, and that gatherings be limited to 25 people. In addition, Tennessee and Georgia are among 16 states under an advisory that requires those traveling to or returning to New York, New Jersey or Connecticut to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Balancing the need to limit the spread of COVID-19 with the desire to support local businesses presents a difficult dilemma, White said.

"We anticipate a lot of visitors coming to our community, and hotels are showing that their reservations are up for the weekend, which is positive," he said. "At the same time, we want to make sure everybody is safe, encourage everybody to wear masks and follow guidelines and take safety precautions."

AAA travel projections

97% of summer trips will road trips, up from an average of 87% over the last five years.AAA expects the national gas price to average near $2.25 a gallon for the third quarter of 2020, which will be a 15% decline from the $2.66 average seen last summer.This will be the cheapest summer for a fill-up since 2016.

After three months of closures, attractions including the Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, Rock City and the Medal of Honor Museum have recently reopened with measures in place to limit capacity and encourage social distancing.

At the Aquarium, visitors must buy time-specific tickets in advance. Staff and volunteers wear masks, and visitors are required to wear masks during "early bird" hours every day, said Thom Benson, chief communications and marketing officer.

"We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask during the rest of the day, but face coverings are only required to be worn by guests from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. each day," he said.

Just 360 guests an hour are allowed throughout the buildings, which is less than half the number the Aquarium hosted over past Fourth of July holidays, Benson said. Since reopening last month, the attraction hasn't sold out its available slots for any single day, and staff members have worked hard to keep people apart, Benson said.

"Our team has been doing an excellent job of 'pulsing' guests into our buildings to ensure that people are properly spaced during their visit," he said.

Paul and Kirsten Rippee drove in Thursday from Nashville for the day with their 2-year-old son, Van, and took advantage of the early hours at the Aquarium when masks were required.

"This is our outing for the day," said Rippee, a musician whose career has been on hold for several months. "I'm off a lot of days."

Paul Rippee was supposed to be in Europe playing gigs this month, he said. Instead, he and the family have been coming up with ways to get out and stay entertained as safely as they can.

"We spend as much time outside as humanly possible," he said.

The Aquarium's safety processes made her feel better about their first real family outing since the crisis took hold in mid-March, Kirsten Rippee said.

"I think we applied hand sanitizer about 20 times," she said.

This summer, AAA predicts Americans will take 700 million trips, down nearly 15% compared to last July through September, and the first decline in summer travel since 2009.

All forms of travel will drop, but car trips will see the smallest decrease of just 3% year-over-year. Air travel, meanwhile, will dive about 74%, while rail, cruise ship and bus travel will slide by 86%.

If not for the pandemic, AAA would project 857 million trips during the third quarter, a 3.6% increase over last year. That data suggests the pandemic wiped out nearly 150 million person-trips this summer.

Occupancy numbers aren't what anyone would normally want them to be, but area hotels are starting to see an uptick in business in the drive-in leisure travel market, said Hiren Desai, CEO of 3H Group Hotels.

"After hitting rock bottom, it's improving," he said. "The leisure travel is coming back. It's all drive-in - three hours or less."

Desai was forced to cut staff when occupancy plummeted early in the crisis, but he's been bringing employees back as occupancy numbers rise, he said.

"We've had some pretty decent weekends the last few weeks," he said. "We follow the CDC guidelines on social distancing, sanitizing. We've tried to take every precaution to create a safe environment for guests and associates."

Hotel occupancy for June in the Chattanooga area was down about 25% from the previous year, though the revenue per room was off 40%, White said.

Scott Fiedler, a TVA spokesman, said the utility anticipates a busy Fourth of July weekend on the water and the trails as people seek safe alternatives to indoor activities.

"People want to get out and enjoy the outdoors," he said. "We expect big crowds along our developed recreation areas and public beaches."

TVA has seen a spike in demand for camping facilities in particular as more people opt for outdoor pastimes during the summer recreation season, he said.

"Booking for reservations is strongly encouraged," he said. "You may not get a spot if you show up without a reservation."

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.