POLAR EXPRESS

The Polar Express will run again this year, but the operator can only sell half of all tickets available to meet the state's requirement of 50% capacity for social distancing aboard the train.

A 40% drop in Palestine tourism revenues from April to July is one more indicator of the pandemic’s widespread influence on the local economy. Higher tourism revenues in January and February offset part of the loss experienced in April, May, June, and July. 

The first two months of 2020 saw revenues exceeding 11% over the projected revenue, offsetting tourism the overall loss to just 18%. Dollars earned in tourism revenues fell from $451,000 in 2019 to $370,000 in 2020 for the same period, October to July.

Tourism revenues come directly from HOT funds, known as the hotel occupancy tax rate of 13% paid by visitors who stay at hotels in Palestine. Of that amount, 7% stays in Palestine, and the other 6% goes to the state.

The reduced funds are an early indication of a drop in Palestine’s holiday tourism, which Tourism Director Mary Raum sees as part of a “slow recovery.” 

The Polar Express will run again this year, but the operator can only sell half of all tickets available to meet the state's requirement of 50% capacity for social distancing aboard the train. 

“The operator only expects to break even on the Polar Express this year,” said Randi Stringham, Tourism Advisory Board chair.

Social distancing may also be a challenge at other holiday attractions like the Grinch’s Lair or the Railroad Heritage Society, two events that draw people to the Main Street District. 

Raum presented the revenue statistics at Wednesday’s Tourism Advisory Board meeting held via Zoom. 

Though unrelated to the revenue shortfall, city budget cuts have limited the tourism department’s ability to work on strategic initiatives and spend all of their advertising budget. While some marketing campaigns are going forward, the city recently denied Raum’s request to spend $2,200 on a marketing campaign, but other campaigns have not been affected.

The tourism department took another hit when the city cut three part-time Visitor Center employees in mid-June. Raum said the center is still helping visitors, but progress on strategic initiatives has slowed. 

Cori Conrad, who joined the city as Heritage Development Coordinator in March, is the only other employee at the center. The two employees are trying to plan between walk-ins by visitors several times a day. Raum has requested a part-time Visitor Center specialist to work during the peak months that begin in October. 

“We have a lot of big initiatives that we want to accomplish,” Raum said. “Our productivity has dropped because we don’t have a visitor specialist at the front.” 

Stringham said the pandemic is providing “a unique opportunity” for Palestine tourism. 

“People are wanting to come to places where things are more like they used to be,” Stringham said. “COVID hurt us in the short term, but it’s opening up great opportunities for us in the future as a place people want to visit – we’re a rural city rich in history, natural beauty, and outdoor recreational opportunities.”

Stringham encourages residents to view the Visit Palestine Facebook page online to become more familiar with activities in town.

“They will multiply our marketing just by word of mouth, telling people they know about what’s available here,” she said.

The Visitor’s Center is online at www.visitpalestine.com or on Facebook @visitpalestine. Call 903-723-3014 for information.

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