Tourists returning to Grand Canyon, but businesses still feel pandemic effects

(Video by Faith Abercrombie/Cronkite News)

GRAND CANYON – Grand Canyon National Park has seen a rebound in domestic visitors in 2021, but not enough to compensate for the loss of international travelers the park usually attracts, officials say.

Since May 2020, parts of the park have been accessible for tourists who abide by COVID-19 guidelines, which instructs people who aren’t fully vaccinated to wear face masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces, among other measures. Local businesses still are adjusting to reduced visitation as a result of the pandemic in 2020.

“This year, our numbers are trending up as the country gets vaccinated and people are more comfortable traveling again,” Superintendent Ed Keable said in mid-July. “But we’re not at 100%. We’re somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe 70 to 75%.”

The park saw about 6.2 million visitors in 2019, Keable said. About 50% fewer tourists visited the park in 2020, in part because of its closure for seven weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bright Angel Bicycles at the Grand Canyon still is recovering from the pandemic shutdown in 2020. Overall business has been better than expected, “but still not what it was,” co-owner Wes Neal says. (Photo by Faith Abercrombie/Cronkite News)

Through June 2021, about 1.8 million people have visited, according to Park Service data.

Keable said 30% to 40% of tourists usually are from other countries.

Former President Donald Trump in March 2020 established strict restrictions on travelers coming into the U.S., and the Biden administration has maintained them. Officials said the surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has halted reopening the U.S. to European travelers, according to CNN.

The ride hasn’t been easy, some small business owners say.

Wes Neal, co-owner of Bright Angel Bicycles, said overall business has been better than expected, “but still not what it was.” The small, family-owned business rents bikes, leads tours and works with families to make sure they experience the Grand Canyon safely.

“Our guided tour and our shuttle service have been greatly reduced,” Neal said. “We’re doing less than half of what we used to do.”

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Some local businesses have experienced a surge in visitors, but they may not have enough staff to handle the influx. One Tusayan restaurant general manager told Marketplace they were hiring for every position. Visitors have faced long lines, crowded shuttles and full parking lots. The Grand Canyon’s website indicates the South Entrance Station can have wait times up to two hours.

Other local businesses have adjusted their daily operations to meet the reduced demand.

“When there’s a lot more people, I remember we used to run around like there was never a break,” said Artisha Charley, staff member at Bright Angel Bicycles. “Now you do run around, but not as much as before – because again, it’s really slow now.”

Even through various local mandates and regulations, Bright Angel Bicycles continues to prepare for the next customer.

“We strive to continue,” Neal said. “If you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Victoria Hill vic-toh-ree-a hil (she/her)
News Digital Producer, Phoenix

Victoria Hill expects to graduate in May 2021 with a master’s degree in journalism. She graduated from ASU in August 2020 with a bachelor’s in journalism and minor in film and media studies.

Faith Abercrombie feyth ah-ber-crom-bee (she/her)
News Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Faith Abercrombie expects graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Abercrombie, who has interned with KPNX in Phoenix and was a videographer for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.