Optimism that coronavirus won’t impact tourism

Jason Ferguson
State Department of Tourism officials, as well as local tourist destination and hospitality industry officials say they are not yet worried the spread of the novel coronavirus will affect this summer’s tourism to the state, either through visitation or the import of foreign workers.
“South Dakota sees great success in international visitation,” said Katlyn Richter, global media & public relations director for the South Dakota Department of Tourism. “We remain confident that we will be able to see another successful year of travel tourism in South Dakota.”
Richter said the Department of Tourism works closely with a company in China throughout the year for the state’s international travel trade marketing, media efforts and social media marketing. Richter said the state has kept up to date on the situation in China and have adjusted marketing tactics due to the outbreak. She added Department of Tourism has resources through the U.S. Travel Association and Brand USA (the marketing organization that promote travel to the United States to international audiences) that it can obtain up-to-date information from. The Department of Tourism receives daily updates from each organization.
Richter said while there will likely be a decrease in visitors from China to the United States, and subsequently, South Dakota, this summer, there could be an increased number of visitors from other international markets that were otherwise considering China as a destination.
“At this point, we are working on speculation only on how this will have an impact on visitation in South Dakota and throughout the U.S.,” Richter said.
Locally, former Business Improvement District (BID) board president Marcel Wahlstrom, who along with wife, Sherry, owns the Bavarian Inn and other tourism-related properties, said he doesn’t think the virus will have much of an impact at all.
“I think if people travel less internationally, they might stay in the U.S.,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to have much of an impact. 2020 is looking strong across the board.”
Leah Scott, BID board president and chief operating officer for Custer Hospitality, said the more the virus spreads, the more of a concern it becomes for Custer Hospitality, but more on the visitation end of things than hiring help. Scott said Custer Hospitality applied for 40 H-2B workers and four J-1s. The H-2B program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs. The Exchange Visitor  (J-1) non-immigrant visa category is for individuals approved to participate in work- and study-based exchange visitor programs. Scott said Custer Hospitality generally employs 35 to 50 foreign workers during the summer.
Custer Hospitality owns the Econolodge, Comfort Inn, Super 8, Holiday Inn, Best Western and Buffalo Ridge Camping Resort in Custer. Scott said all of the branded property has been preparing staff and issuing guidelines for what to do if it should end up where the hotels are.
“Our staff is exposed to people from everywhere, so that’s a concern from us as well,” she said.
If for some reason it turns out Custer Hospitality cannot import foreign workers, it could severely hamper its ability to do business this summer. The foreign workers are already the company’s plan B.
“We would love to hire locally,” she said. “There isn’t a plan C at this point.”
Mike Tennyson, owner of Custer Hospitality, said he believes the virus will have a mixed impact, with a reduction in international travelers but more tourists attracted to vacation destinations that can be reached by car. He believes the airline and cruise ship industries will feel the brunt of it.
“It seems if it isn’t the weather or gas prices it’s something else,” he said.
As of March 3, there were over 92,000 reported cases of coronavirus worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and 62 in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Deaths have topped 3,000. The South Dakota Department of Health currently shows zero cases in the state.
The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan City in China in January and has spread around the world in a relatively short period. Like the viruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, coronavirus spread from animals to humans, although the definitive animal source has yet to be identified. The “spillover” of the virus was likely due to human consumption of an animal or proximity to the animal, health officials say. The virus is now spreading from human to human, according to the CDC.
In most cases of animal to human spread, the viruses don’t become contagious between humans as quickly as coronavirus did. This is just one of the “unique” things about this virus. The current death rate from the coronavirus is approximately 2 percent with the highest death rate for people — particularly men — older than 60. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Gov. Kristi Noem said last week the state has created an internal task force to prepare South Dakota for the possibility of a new coronavirus outbreak, according to the Associated Press.
The governor called the threat of an outbreak in the state “very low.” Shortly before Noem spoke, California officials announced a worrisome development — someone in California is infected, but does not appear to have the usual risk factor of travel abroad or exposure to another infected person.
Noem said the state’s Department of Health is making sure that physicians can test for the virus and provide care if people are infected. Other state agencies across the United States are preparing for the virus, even while President Donald Trump has tried to minimize fears of an outbreak.
“We’ve identified supplies, made sure that we are adequately prepared,” Noem told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
South Dakota is working with the CDC and Prevention to get testing equipment so that cases of the virus can be identified quickly. Florida had to send potential cases to Atlanta last week because it did not have the proper equipment to test for the virus.
Some health professionals say the fear is overblown and driven by the media.
“If we have a pandemic, I won’t know how to tell  that we are actually having one because everything is an emergency,” said Dr. Drew Pinsky on Daily Blast Live. “The press needs to shut up. You’re more likely to die of influenza right now.”
Pinsky said the deaths from coronavirus are always in immuno-compromised people and people who are already at risk if they get a severe viral respiratory infection.
“The rest of us need to wash our hands, get our influenza vaccines, listen to the CDC—if there is a problem, they will let us know,” he said.
The CDC pointed out that 5,000 people in the U.S. had died from the flu in the past two weeks, the show host said.
“Why aren’t we panicked about that? Three people died on the streets of Los Angeles this morning for homelessness. If that were coronavirus, people would freak the hell out,” he said. “Why aren’t we putting our parties in the right place? It’s the press. The press does not know how to report on medical issues.”

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