The number of people flying for a spring break vacation is up this year.
U.S. air passenger volumes in recent days have ranged from 2.2 million and 2.5 million, similar to the same days in 2019 before the pandemic began, according to the Transportation Security Administration, and more than double the number in 2020.
Officials with the San Antonio International Airport said they expect to log the busiest spring break the airport has experienced in recent years. More than 130,000 people are expected to fly out of SAT between March 13 and 17, which is an increase of about 10,000 people compared to last year.
Signs of the resurgence in travel were everywhere this week in San Antonio, from people attending business meetings to visitors streaming into the city’s theme parks.
While summertime is considered San Antonio’s biggest season for tourism, the spring season kicks off the convention and meeting season for the year.
Meetings are a hallmark of the San Antonio tourism industry, which is estimated to have a $16 billion annual impact on the local economy, according to a 2021 study by Richard Butler and Mary Stefl of Trinity University.
But while the meeting and hotel rooms went empty in 2020 and the city became a ghost town when the pandemic began, things appear to be back on track in 2023.
On March 23, an estimated 4,000 people are expected in San Antonio for the annual meeting of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy/Managed Care & Specialty Pharmacy.
Other events fill the calender for the Henry B. González Convention Center, leading up to the U.S. Travel Association’s multi-day trade event, IPW, starting on May 20.
It is the first time in the group’s 54-year history that the event has been held in San Antonio, said a spokesman, and over 5,000 people are expected.
But traditional business travel is evolving. Remote work has led to a new kind of working vacation dubbed “bleisure travel.” But it’s nothing new to the people who market San Antonio as a destination.
“[We have been] talking about how it is possible to come to San Antonio and enjoy a great meeting but also enjoy our culinary and cultural and fun atmospheres. … That’s part of our messaging and has been for years,” said David Gonzalez, vice president of media relations for the tourism bureau Visit San Antonio.
Destinations abroad are on the itinerary for U.S. spring break travelers this year, reports travel agency AAA. Booking data shows international travel is up 30% over 2022.
That’s despite the fact that travel overall this spring break is expected to be more expensive than last year, according to AAA.
In addition to increases in airfare and gas prices, hotel rates are 20% to 30% higher than in 2022, and possibly even higher for accommodations in warm and popular beach destinations.
A ticket to the fun is also increasing. The average cost of a theme park ticket is $75, according to Bankrate.com, although single-day tickets for SeaWorld San Antonio start at $49.99 and for Six Flags Fiesta Texas at $39.99.
The good news is that drivers in Texas are paying the third lowest gas price average in the country.
It’s also good news for the San Antonio travel industry.
“Year round, 70% of our visitation is from within Texas and regional states,” said Gonzalez. “So we capitalize off of that for spring break, obviously, but also when people are not as sure about the economy as they could be.”
In fact, hotel bookings in San Antonio are trending up 3% over last year, which was just over 72% occupancy for the month of March, he said.
“The streets are busy, the restaurants are busy, the zoo is busy, all the attractions are busy,” Gonzalez said. “So if you talk to any of the operators, they’ll likely tell you that they’re experiencing very healthy numbers this year.”
Robert Thrailkill, vice president of operations for Zachry Hospitality, said he is expecting the hotels he oversees in San Antonio, including the Hilton Palacio del Rio, to be sold out between March 13 and 18.
Business travel for group meetings during March is also up, bringing hotel occupancy levels to 80% to 90%, he said. “This type of occupancy is what we would have seen during March in pre-COVID times.”
The crowd forecast for Six Flags Fiesta Texas was ranked as “packed” the week of spring break, March 11-18, according to queue-times.com, with an hour-long wait time for the Boomerang ride and 45 minutes for the Dare Devil Dive Flying Machines.
At SeaWorld San Antonio, crowds were between 92% and 98% capacity between March 11 and 18, which is considered “packed,” by queue-times.com. Wait times hovered around 45 minutes for popular rides like Rio Loco and Wave breaker.
The remaining days of the month are expected to draw crowds of about 63% to 85% of capacity, depending on the day.