Homebound for months, people are clamoring for vacation, even if it means sticking close to home. And San Antonio’s tourism industry is preparing for the wave of “staycationers” even as health officials declare a second wave of coronavirus.

In a recent survey by travel website The Points Guy, 31 percent of Americans are not only ready to emerge from lockdown, but they are also ready for summer travel; another 13 percent say they will take a vacation at the end of the season.

Nationwide, bookings for Airbnb rentals made between May 17 and June 6 are up over the same period last year, and some hotels in the downtown San Antonio area were reporting occupancy levels of 50 to 60 percent during the recent Memorial Day weekend.

“It started pretty steady and I would say there was about a third of what we would usually see on a holiday weekend,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of the San Antonio River Walk Association, which supports businesses situated along the most-visited attraction in the state.

“And then the protests definitely caused it to die down and [hit] a lull. So now the curfews have been lifted, and the protests have decreased. More people are calling to ask if things are open.”

The answer is yes, all across the city. The San Antonio Zoo, some museums, and the entertainment spots on Alamo Plaza are already welcoming guests.  

Water parks Schlitterbahn and Aquatica open Saturday and Go Rio Cruises on the River Walk start up again on Monday, with cruises modified to allow social distancing.

Theme park officials at two of San Antonio’s biggest attractions, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld, announced they will reopen June 19.

About 60 percent of River Walk businesses are open, Thompson said. (A complete list of downtown attractions, restaurants, and hotels that are open is available at the San Antonio River Walk website.)

That’s good news for vacationers who want to stick close to home as well as for San Antonio’s economy.

Travel experts say that in the next six months, most leisure travelers won’t venture outside the U.S. Travel research firm Longwoods International conducted a survey that found 86 percent of people plan to travel domestically in the next six months, 4 percent internationally, and 2 percent plan to take a “staycation.”

That doesn’t mean they won’t leave the comforts of their own home. In a survey commissioned by Airbnb, nearly half of all respondents said they would prefer to stay within a day’s drive for their first trip once lockdown restrictions lift. Over half of Airbnb bookings in May are for short-term rentals that are within 200 miles of their home, up from one-third in February.

Low gas prices and a struggling economy may drive more people to choose destinations closer to home, especially over air travel. But a GasBuddy survey also found that the number of Americans planning a road trip is down 44 percent from last year as they take more of a “wait and see” attitude.

Most years, nearly 16 million of San Antonio’s annual 39 million visitors come from other parts of the state – likely driving from cities such as Houston and Corpus Christi. This year, however, local tourism officials are expecting that “drive-market” to come through in a big way.

But they aren’t waiting around. In addition to opening up attractions, San Antonio’s tourism industry is working to restart the city’s $15 billion tourism economy by luring not only visitors from out of town but locals as well, with discount promotions and promises of sanitized venues.

“One of the messages we’re sending out strongly is that we are ready when you’re ready,” Thompson said. “We’re not saying, ‘get yourself in gear and get down here,’ but that we’re ready when you’re ready. We’re open, we’re prepared, we’ll be cleaned. Because there are people that do want to get out, explore and do, and they go as families and as small groups, and we have that opportunity now.”

Starting June 15, San Antonio residents who book a local hotel through the Si San Antonio Staycation campaign website, created by Visit San Antonio and its partners, will earn a discount card to more than 150 area restaurants and attractions. There’s another bonus to make you feel good: 10 percent of the hotel rate from each stay will go to support the San Antonio Food Bank.

“Sometimes you forget about all the wonderful amenities in your own backyard,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit SA, in an April interview. “I think this will be a fun way to promote that for locals.”

Going downtown will be easier, too. On Wednesday, City Council approved free parking in its downtown lots and garages all summer long. Free parking will be available through August, all day on Saturdays and Sundays, and on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. at City-owned garages, pay stations, and street meters. Find locations on this map.

With fewer visitors in San Antonio due to the pandemic, the smaller-than-usual crowds in restaurants, attractions, and the River Walk at this time of year could be welcomed by staycation tourists and those making return trips from other parts of the state.

“It’s a great time [for locals] to come down and enjoy because it is coming back,” Thompson said.

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Shari Biediger

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