Sharon Aguillen has the dates etched in her memory. 

As president and CEO of the San Antonio Visitor Alliance, Aguillen represents tourist-drawing businesses that expected throngs of visitors to descend on the city last year during spring break, just like they do every year.

But during the two weeks of vacation from school that would have drawn locals and tourists alike to downtown San Antonio, its theme parks, and the zoo between March 7 and 22, tourism took a nosedive. 

It began with a public health declaration on March 2, then local officials put a number limit on gatherings on March 13, and days later, nonessential businesses were shuttered. 

“It was a sad sight a year ago,” Aguillen said. The sidewalks and streets were empty and quiet, but the sudden crash rippled across the San Antonio economy. 

This spring break, however, looks more like years past – a bustling River Walk and Alamo Plaza, full parks and attractions, busy restaurants, and booked-up hotels – according to those in San Antonio’s visitor industry. “It just brings the whole city to life again,” Aguillen said.

A mariachi band performs for a group of people dining at a restaurant on the San Antonio Riverwalk. Each restaurant and bar can make their own policies regarding mask-wearing and social distancing that patrons are encouraged to comply with. Tuesday, March, 16, 2021.
A mariachi band performs for a family dining along the San Antonio River Walk. Each restaurant and bar can make their own policies regarding mask-wearing and social distancing that patrons are encouraged to comply with. Credit: Bria Woods/ San Antonio Report

Summer is considered San Antonio’s biggest season for tourism, not spring break. Of the 21 million overnight leisure travelers who visit the city every year, 7 million arrive during the summer months. Visit SA spends the largest chunk of its ad budget targeting summer travel, said Richard Oliver, spokesman for Visit San Antonio

But the pandemic reset anticipated by industry leaders during spring break 2021 is in full swing. “In talking to our partners, hotels, and restaurants, and the attractions, it has been great,” Oliver said. “It’s not pre-pandemic [or] 2019 levels yet, but people are really excited about how things are kind of trending.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against spring break travel, even for those who are vaccinated. But after a year of lockdowns, and with the rollout of vaccines and declining coronavirus cases, people are clearly ready for a vacation. 

Walt Disney World reported March 7 that all of its Florida parks are completely booked for the week of March 15, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios has no availability for the rest of the month. (Disneyland in California plans to reopen April 1.)

But a city like Orlando is a fly-to destination for most. While air travel numbers are climbing, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint data, the pandemic has driven a car culture nationwide that could help jump-start San Antonio’s tourism market. 

“Seventy percent of our travel that comes into San Antonio is from inside the state of Texas,” Oliver said. “We’re just a huge family-travel market, and we’re also one of those last-minute markets.”

A GoRio Riverboat tour floats down the San Antonio River. Masks are required on the boats during the entirety of the boat tour. Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
A GoRio Riverboat tour floats down the San Antonio River. Masks are required on the boats during the entirety of the boat tour. Credit: Bria Woods/ San Antonio Report

Aguillen said the industry anticipated that the driving [and] overnight business would come back sooner than any other segment of the tourism market because consumer confidence in the safety of travel by car is much higher than for air travel. 

During the week of March 8, when most San Antonio schools were out for spring break, tourism was mostly made up of locals, she said. A UIL basketball championship at the Alamodome March 10-13 also brought visitors to the city. 

A greater number of tourists were expected for the second week of spring break, which began March 15, when schools in other Texas cities typically take vacation. 

The San Antonio Zoo has had more visitors in recent days than the previous week, said Hope Roth, vice president of marketing for the zoo, which temporarily closed down between the two weeks of spring break last year.

“We’re excited to see that people are coming back out, and we’ve tried to let everybody know that we’ve got safe, fun, opportunities for them,” Roth said. 

The arrival of teams and staff for the upcoming NCAA women’s basketball tournament is expected this week as well, though there will be fewer fans due to attendance limits. 

After last year’s springtime closures, local theme parks, SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, reopened in June with limited capacities. 

This year, Six Flags Entertainment, which bills itself as the world’s largest regional theme park, is emerging from pandemic losses in the millions of dollars to mark its 60th year in 2021. It’s celebrating “with safety at the forefront,” stated a press release announcing its newest rides and attractions. 

In San Antonio, Six Flags debuted the Dare Devil Dive Flying Machines in late February just in time for spring break 2021. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for information about attendance. But Aguillen said like most of San Antonio’s largest attractions, the park is experiencing “good days.”

At SeaWorld San Antonio, park President Byron Surrett also reported a good spring break for the aquatic theme park. “We’re very happy so far,” he said. 

Like Aguillen, Surrett recalls the darker days when the pandemic began.

“This past Sunday would be the day that we closed,” he said. But the week before that, “we already started seeing the impact with numbers being down, consumer confidence starting to wane.” 

In September, SeaWorld laid off 242 employees previously furloughed due to the pandemic and sinking ticket sales. 

But while the tourism industry continues to face the challenges of a pandemic, its threats to both public health and profits, this year’s spring break attendance exceeded Surrett’s expectations. The mild weather helped, he said. 

“And I think we’ve definitely taken advantage of people wanting to get out of the house and travel,” Surrett said. 

SeaWorld introduced its new Texas Stingray wooden roller coaster last year and has a full lineup of events planned through the rest of the year. The park is currently hiring, Surrett said. This weekend, the Aquatica water park will be open.

“Getting through this spring break and seeing the positive numbers that were coming out from people in Dallas and Houston and even Oklahoma, that tells me that people are really ready to get out and do something, and hopefully that will translate to the same thing as we hit the month of May and going into the summer,” he said.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.