Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / There was little traffic on the Market Street Bridge on a warm Sunday, May 2, 2020.

The Tennessee Aquarium turned 28 years old on Friday, May 1, the start of a beautiful weekend in downtown Chattanooga — warm, sunny, breezy. And eerily, utterly empty.

"We've never faced a situation like this before," says Thom Benson, spokesman for the aquarium that anchors Chattanooga's normally vibrant riverfront tourism scene. "While this crisis swept over the nation rapidly, I don't think anyone believes the recovery process will happen as quickly, especially for tourism."

No, it won't happen quickly, agrees Barry White, who heads the Chattanooga Tourism Company

"A total recovery will take about three years, to get back to 2019 levels," White predicts. "Every indication is that travel industry losses will exceed any other sector."

The Chattanooga Tourism Company was the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau until a quiet rebranding campaign in April, a long-planned new name and logo rolled out with little fanfare as the organization slammed on the brakes of nearly every campaign leaders had planned for 2020.

"We were in the middle of spring break promotion," White says of the first days of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. "March is a fantastic month for Chattanooga."

Fears of COVID-19 put an abrupt stop to all of that, prompting an avalanche of cancellations that emptied hotels and sent the local tourism industry, which brought in $1.16 billion in visitor spending last year, into a dizzying tailspin.

"We saw a 30% decline in hotel occupancy in one week — literally a crash," White says of those early days. "We pulled all external advertising and marketing to focus 100% on our community and our partners and what we can do to help them."

March was bad. April was worse. By the end of the month, travel spending in Tennessee was down 81%, White says. Now, with summer just dawning, the normally booming travel and tourism season is one of cautious, critical steps back to nothing like normalcy.

"Everything that's going to happen after this is contingent on what happens right now," White says of the tentative, partial reopenings slowly unfolding in May. "The next month or two is everything. Every business that is allowed to open, every park, every place that people can gather, everybody has got to keep practicing safe distancing and safe behaviors.

"We don't want to have to push the reset button," he says. "That will just put us back even farther."

The aquarium, which attracted 745,000 guests last year, expects to lose more than $5 million if it remains closed through May, Benson says.

"Like so many others, we want to reopen as soon as possible," he says. "But we will only do so when it is safe and in the best interests of everyone."

When the time comes to reopen, social distancing will be a crucial element of the plan, Benson says.

"This will mean we will suspend some of our most popular programs in order to avoid crowding at our dive show window, for example," he says.

Rock City, the iconic Lookout Mountain attraction that has hosted generations of visitors over nearly 90 years, is also trying to walk the line between welcoming guests back and playing it safe, says President Susan Harris.

"Specific to Rock City Gardens, we are thinking about capacity management in new and different ways, as well as prioritizing more intense sanitizing practices than we might have previously," she says.

When no one comes to play, it's not just the tourist attractions that take the hit. Across the community, hotels, restaurants and other related businesses feel the pain, as well. Visitors spent more than $3 million a day in Chattanooga in 2019, and paid more than $8 million in hotel room taxes that help fund the Chattanooga Tourism Company.

White expects that revenue to fall by more than half through the remainder of 2020.

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Chattanooga tourism season faces chilling outlook

A year ago, those room taxes were growing so briskly that some members of the Hamilton County Commission advocated freezing the funding of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau at the $8.2 million generated by the fees in fiscal 2019. Anticipating steady growth in that amount, they wanted to allocate funds beyond that level to other projects.

Now, hotels have been among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic, with 70% of hotel employees out of work and 80% of rooms empty across the country, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

"Hotels were one of the first industries affected by the pandemic, and will be one of the last to recover," Chip Rogers, CEO of the association, writes in a statement.

If social distancing practices continue to minimize the spread of coronavirus, the local travel and tourism scene will take baby steps toward recovery through June, July and August, White predicts. But there won't be anything like a full recovery or a return to normal this year, he adds.

"We will not market ourselves as a destination for visitors until we are 100% prepared as a community and our residents will be safe," White says. "The last thing we want is to become a city labeled as unsafe."

Big conventions or festivals aren't likely to return to calendars this year, White predicts, but there will be a gradual return to smaller groups of visitors who typically drive here to see friends and family and enjoy the outdoors.

"More than a third of our visitors are visiting friends and relatives," he says. "People are going to want to reunite with their friends and family as soon as they can travel."