Vaccinated and restless, holiday travelers return at near-2019 levels

Cars and trucks pack Interstate 10 in downtown Phoenix in this 2018 photo. The COVID-19 pandemic quashed most travel last year, but experts say Arizonans are itching to travel this Memorial Day, as more people are vaccinated and the pandemic wanes. Many holiday trips will be in-state road trips, they say. (Photo by Jessica Clark/ Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – They don’t care how they get out, they’re just ready to get out.

Travel experts say that with more people getting vaccinated and the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic easing, they expect the number of Memorial Day travelers to bounce back to almost pre-pandemic levels this holiday weekend.

That’s expected to be true for planes, trains and automobiles, as well as for hotel bookings, all of which are surging this year – but not quite to the levels seen in 2019.

“With more people getting vaccinated and travel excitement reaching its highest levels since the pandemic started, we’re seeing some strong indications that we’ll see a robust Memorial Day weekend across our state,” said Joshua Coddington, director of communications with the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Arizonans’ itch to travel is not unique: As many as 37 million Americans are expected to travel over the holiday, said Aldo Vazquez, spokesperson for AAA Arizona.

Vazquez said 93% of travelers nationally will take a road trip, despite record high gas prices leading up to the holiday. The national average price of $3.035 per gallon is more than $1 higher than last year’s price, with the highest price at $4.17 a gallon in California and Mississippi posting the lowest average of $2.71. Arizonans can expect to pay $3.13 a gallon this weekend.

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“Travelers this year should be prepared for the most expensive gas prices we’ve seen since 2014, no matter where they fill up,” Vazquez said.

Vazquez said travel in Arizona alone is expected to be 61% higher than last year. Many of those travelers will be Arizonans, Coddington said: The tourism office said that state residents will be behind the wheel for about 75% of road trips throughout Arizona this weekend.

“Arizona offers virtually endless trip options with so much wide-open space and beautiful geography to explore, I expect lots of people and families to be out this weekend,” he said.

Not all trips will be close to home, however. The trade group Airlines for America, or A4A, said it is seeing “a gradual uptick” in demand for air travel as summer approaches after hitting their lowest levels last year since the 1950s.

Officials at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport would not predict what kind of travel traffic they will see this weekend. But they said numbers continue to surge from last year’s lockdown numbers to almost pre-pandemic levels.

“March 2021 was the airport’s busiest month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gregory Roybal, public information officer for the airport. “Passenger traffic was down 34% compared to March of 2019, but was 25% higher than March 2020.”

That was mirrored on the national level, where A4A spokesperson Katherine Estep said airlines carried 29% fewer passengers last week than at the same time pre-pandemic. Even though demand for air travel “remains significantly below” where it used to be, it is still a vast improvement over the 96% drop in passengers seen at the worst of the pandemic. She predicted that it will take until 2023 before airlines are back to 2019 passenger volumes.

Those reports, of travel numbers being significantly higher than last year but still below the 2019 levels, were common. Vazquez said Memorial Day travel overall is up 60% from 2020, but is still 13% less than travel in 2019.

After falling sharply last year, the number of passengers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has started to rebound, although it is still not up to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

Coddington also noted that 2019 set a record for tourism in Arizona, but that hotel bookings this April were “only 8% below the 2019 hotel occupancy level … the fact we’re only 8% below that shows we’re getting closer to where we would like to be.”

And resorts and parks are doing their best to get more travelers to come back. Coddington said resorts across Arizona are offering special rates and promotions including waived resort fees, food and beverage credits, and spa and golf deals.

Salt River Tubing is offering free, patriotic bandanas throughout the weekend while supplies last, for example, and Lake Havasu is open with no restrictions in terms of the pandemic or capacity, said Michelle Thompson, an Arizona State Parks spokesperson.

“In the past Lake Havasu has reached maxed capacity, but it’s probably not going to get to that point this weekend,” Thompson said.

Grand Canyon National Park remains open, but with public health measures that include capacity limits, some mask and social distancing requirements, limited South Rim shuttle service and temporary closure of some facilities.

Other national, state and local parks are also encouraging visitors to come out this weekend.

As travel numbers start to climb back to normal, experts said they hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.

“Memorial Day weekend is important because it kicks off summer travel season,” Coddington said. “Memorial Day is also special in Arizona because it also traditionally kicks off our staycation season.”

Brooke Newman brooke rae noo-mun (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Brooke Newman is a master’s journalism student at Arizona State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in justice studies in 2021. She has worked in the Cronkite News D.C. bureau as a social justice and politics reporter and has written for The Arizona Republic, AZBigMedia and The State Press.