A few dozen people milled around Alamo Plaza during Memorial Day weekend, a fraction of the number visiting last year.

The crowd mostly lingered in the shade, people-watching, while some snapped photos in front of the still-closed Alamo or nearby Cenotaph. Downtown’s main thoroughfares – both street and river levels – were largely empty Saturday afternoon, with concentrated pockets of activity at the handful of tables outside of open restaurants.

Annetta Nichols, visiting from Dawsonville, Georgia, and her boyfriend, from Buffalo, Texas, took turns racing by on a scooter across the street. Nichols traveled to Buffalo on Thursday, and the couple decided to take advantage of the free time they had by driving four hours southwest to San Antonio. Sipping on a frozen drink, Nichols said the two planned to visit the Alamo and make their way along the River Walk.

“I wasn’t worried about coming with coronavirus [going on]; there’s plenty of space here,” Nichols said.

The two visitors are part of a smaller than normal group of tourists who made their way to San Antonio for the inaugural holiday weekend of the summer. Normally, this is a busy time for hotels and tourist attractions, but the coronavirus pandemic has greatly diminished this year’s numbers, several tourism industry experts said.

Sharon Aguillen, CEO of the San Antonio Visitor Alliance, observed that downtown looks like “you’ve never seen it before” with little foot or vehicle traffic. She projected that, because of the coronavirus, the people who are out visiting attractions are more likely to be locals.

“Some of the smaller facilities on the tourist attraction side of things [like Natural Bridge Caverns], they are seeing a higher rise in the locals, whereas their mix a year prior may have been more out-of-town folk and less San Antonians,” Aguillen said.

In 2019, San Antonio attracted almost 40 million visitors, with more than 70 percent visiting from other cities in Texas. Tourism has been the third-largest sector of the city’s economy, generating more than $15 billion annually.

Tourism numbers from 2020 won’t be available for months, but officials who lead the industry accept there will be losses in all areas.

Part of the reason there may be fewer out of town visitors over the Memorial Day weekend is that a number of popular sites like Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio don’t have clearance to reopen their doors. Tourist River Walk favorite Go Rio Cruises also remains closed.

Many visitors like to stack their schedules with attractions, and tourists could be waiting for more to open up to fill their agendas, Aguillen said.

Even some smaller businesses are slow to invite in guests. For the ones that remain closed, it might not make financial sense to reopen with smaller capacity, in line with Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders.

Maggie Thompson, executive director of the San Antonio River Walk Association, estimated between 60 percent and 70 percent of River Walk businesses are now open.

For the bars and restaurants that are open, it’s important to encourage safe practices so tourists feel safe to visit, Thompson said. That’s why the River Walk Association is encouraging businesses to adopt safe practices like using contactless payment options and cleaning or sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly.

There are roughly 15,000 hotel rooms downtown and 40,000 city-wide, according to 2018 data from the San Antonio Visitor Alliance. Occupancy for Memorial Day weekend typically had been close to 100 percent, Aguillen said.

Until tourism picks up, Robert Thrailkill, the general manager of the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, expects occupancy in hotels to be significantly lower than normal. Hotels were never ordered closed, but several did for financial or other reasons.

Balconies are empty at the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk hotel. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Hilton Palacio Del Rio remains closed now to complete some projects, but Thrailkill expects to open up June 1.

As for Memorial Day weekend, “I think it’s going to be very quiet from a tourist perspective, but from a local perspective, I think we’ll see a number of locals walking and enjoying our city than they would on a holiday weekend,” Thrailkill said Friday. “We don’t ever have a chance to enjoy it the way locals are enjoying it right now.”

Thrailkill’s hotel already has about 40 to 60 reservations for weekends in June, representing a small percentage of his hotel’s overall capacity of 485 rooms. About half the reservations are from locals planning a staycation, he said.

As the summer goes on, the hotel general manager expects “huge valleys in the week and peaks on the weekends.”

With group room reservations from conventions nonexistent at this time, occupancy won’t be anywhere close to where it was a year ago.

Aguillen is optimistic that tourism will pick back up as the summer continues and more attractions reopen.

San Antonio is a drive-in market and visitors from around the state have always found it easy to make the short trip in to visit the city’s biggest attractions, she said.

Thrailkill agreed that this summer could help, but he doesn’t expect miracles.

“It is going to be a long haul back. It is not going to be something where we’re going to see normal numbers in 2020,” he projected. “It is going to be 2021 before we see some normal numbers.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.