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Can New Hampshire's travel industry recover from this crisis?

For years we have promoted New Hampshire as a rural paradise, full of hiking, biking and paddling. And what do you know! That was a good thing. Now in a Covid-19 world, travel and tourism is turned on its head. With tourism the second largest industry in the state, with thousands of businesses and jobs tied to its success - New Hampshire has a lot at stake. Can the Granite State survive? What will tourism look like after Covid-19? The truth is, no one knows for sure. But one thing is certain - New Hampshire may have in its tourism DNA the ability to make it through.

So, the fact is that before March 2020, New Hampshire was not a tourism powerhouse. Sandwiched between the strong brands of Maine and Vermont, New Hampshire drew from a variety of market segments - from skiers, hikers, families, summer residents and outdoor enthusiasts.

But the state did not have a strong urban draw, often seeing tourists bypassing cities for the Lakes Region and White Mountains. That was the way younger travelers were headed.

Before March 2020, global tourism was in growth mode, with younger travelers seeking the new, bright cities, real culture, and bold cuisine. But with Times Square empty, Paris in lockdown, and deserted airports, the road ahead is quite different today.

The first issue that may benefit New Hampshire is how people get to where they want to go. It will be a while before folks rush off to crowded flights, and while that may spell not so good news for Logan Airport - we cannot forget that major cities are just a few hours from New Hampshire. New York, Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Montreal are all an easy drive. And folks will be a lot more likely to drive than fly. And, some may opt for rail if it is perceived as safer — and there are 4 Amtrak stations in NH (bonus points if you can name them).

Many travelers may avoid large cities. So crowded downtowns or attractions may be a huge turn off — so look for the search for small, safe cities with lots to do outdoors. Keene, Dover, Concord and Manchester may be the new go-to destinations for those looking for an urban flair without the crowds or lines. And in cities - parks, outdoor art, sidewalk shopping and dining will be a big selling point.

And then there is our culture. Look for an interest in having it move outside, with outdoor concerts, plays and performances. Also, public sculpture walking tours will be of interest to the new (and likely younger) traveler.

Then there will be the Covid-19 refugees. Much as folks who could afford to leave big cities during the summer in the late 19th century — we may see them fleeing the new challenges of Boston, Philadelphia or New York to look for a small farmhouse, in a sweet little town, where kids can run and play — and be mostly free of Covid-19.

New Hampshire’s great outdoors is already performing well, for good or for bad. There are already difficult discussions being held about the economic benefits versus the health impact of people from cities rushing in to hike and spend time in 2nd homes. Many NH towns live off of skiers, 2nd home owners and hikers. To turn them away would have a huge and negative economic impact. So many destinations are having the same discussion right now. And without effective testing, rules, and infrastructure, it will not be an easy conversation.

The fact that New Hampshire has so many small inns and locally owned hotels may be a huge benefit. In other countries, cleaning certification programs are being set up to help local lodging address the new demands of the marketplace. New Hampshire needs a program like that too.

But it will take a lot of creativity to help New Hampshire’s great attractions. Spacing, limiting crowds, serious cleaning, and creative thinking will be crucial. They also have one advantage -nostalgia. It is likely that as this all plays out many will want to return to a simpler time, before pandemics and bloody politics. The image of an old-fashioned place did not help much a few months ago, but the simple pleasures of a town green, the swimming hole, and the local diner may be the destining facets as many will seek a return to Mayberry. New Hampshire’s old-fashioned fun may be the exact type of escape that many will seek to get away from the horror of the modern world. Escaping and escapism will be the new key factors — as will small batch, quality over quantity, and outdoors.

Well, planned and executed, New Hampshire may do quite well being - New Hampshire, without the crowds. The state might rediscover its 19th century brand of a wild and wonderful place, far from the industry and crowds of a modern world. All we have to be is ourselves, and live free.

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