Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tullahoma residents Paisley Woodcock, 4, Donna Jones and Lee Martin look at the fish at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

With schools across the region on spring break, and vaccines rolling out across the country, the outlook for the kickoff of the travel and tourism season in Chattanooga is brighter than it has been in more than a year.

"We have seen activity pick up both during the week and also on weekends, and we've seen a slight uptick even compared to 2019 for weekday and weekend travel," said Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. "Spring breaks are in full swing."

But that doesn't mean it's time to relax just yet, White added. The Hamilton County mask mandate remains in place through the end of April, and the safety measures local businesses have taken to protect staff and customers remain critically important, he said.

"It's very optimistic, but the caution is we can't loosen up on the safety," White said. "I get it, we are all tired of that, but they are necessary. The last thing we want is another surge."

Hiren Desai, CEO of 3H Group Hotels, said March was a strong month for hotels across the company's portfolio, with occupancy just over 70% in its four Chattanooga properties. The company has 25 hotels, and occupancy in Miami — one of the hardest-hit markets during the pandemic — was at 80% in March, he added.

"It's been a pleasant surprise considering what we've been through in the past 14 months," he said. "I hope it's here to stay."

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Chattanooga hospitality industry

There has been a shift in the patterns of demand, though, as leisure travel has recovered substantially while business travel has not bounced back much at all, he said. That means busy weekends and slower weekdays, which is the opposite of pre-pandemic trends, Desai said.

Terry Hart, CEO of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, said trends in seat availability and bookings are inching upward, though 2020 was something of a lost year.

"When we do comparisons, right now what we're doing is comparing to the same month of 2019," he said. "When I look at the April schedule for 2021 compared to 2019, we are 65% of what the schedule was on daily [available] seats."

In 2020, the airport suffered its worst year for passenger traffic since 1983, with boardings down 59.3% in 2020 over the prior year to 225,289. Bookings are growing, Hart added, but it will be a long time before the industry recovers fully.

"The traveling public is ready to travel as more people have been vaccinated and continue to be vaccinated," he said. "I don't know what or when normal is going to be, but it's not going to just happen in 2021. We'll be well into 2022 before we continue to see this rebound."

At the Tennessee Aquarium, timed tickets and limited capacity are still in effect, though that creates challenges as visitation grows, said Thom Benson, director of marketing. Time slots sell out, and people who don't plan ahead may have to adjust their expectations.

"The last couple weeks, various counties in different states have been on spring break, so we have had — especially on the weekends — sold-out days," he said. "That's creating some challenges for the folks answering our phones."

Starting Friday, the aquarium will open an hour earlier, at 8 a.m., through April 11 to test whether that additional time will help, he said.

"We know this coming week is going to be busier," he said. "The only way to increase capacity is to increase hours. We can't allow more people into our building than is safe."

One thing is for sure, Benson said. This spring break will be better than 2020.

"This will be 100% better than last spring break, when we had zero attendance," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.