As international tourism takes a hit, Missouri attractions adjust

Missouri attractions draw visitors from across the globe looking to learn more about famous figures like Jesse James and Mark Twain or get a classic American experience driving along the old Route 66.

But as the pandemic struck and the U.S. closed its borders to international travelers, Missouri businesses that typically rely on attracting international tourists began looking for new ways to host domestic travelers safely, and they expect to continue to do so as travel restrictions remain.

In 2019, Missouri saw nearly 438,000 international tourists and about 43 million tourists total, according to data from the Missouri Division of Tourism and Visa Destinations, which tracks consumer spending for credit and debit cards. International tourists spent almost $279 million in the state in 2019, with average spending of about $637 per traveler. These numbers could be even higher, as they do not capture cash transactions or prepaid activities, said Stephen Foutes, director of the Missouri Division of Tourism.

“The international traveler, generally speaking, spends more per trip than the domestic leisure traveler, so it is a good market to stay in front of,” Foutes said.

An estimated 438,000 international tourists visited Missouri in 2019, with sites like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum drawing travelers from across the globe. | Courtesy of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

Because of the pandemic, most non-U.S. citizens from 33 countries — including China, India, the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa and Brazil — are currently prohibited from entering American borders. Canadian tourists have effectively been barred from leisure travel to the U.S. since March 2020, although Canada will begin a phased reopening of its borders on July 5.

Canada was the largest source of international visitors to Missouri in 2019, sending nearly 200,000 travelers, according to the Missouri Division of Tourism. Canadians were among the main international visitors to the Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home in St. Joseph before the pandemic. Bus tours from Canada used to visit the museum two or three times per year to learn about James, the famous bank and train robber.

“Almost everybody has heard of Jesse James,” said Gary Chilcote, the museum’s director. “And this is the house where he was killed. It doesn’t take long to go through it and doesn’t cost much, but they’d like to come in and see where he was killed.”

Chilcote said the destination used to welcome visitors from 14 states and two countries every day. After the pandemic hit, international tourism became almost nonexistent, and it has yet to recover.

“Most of the countries don’t really have access to the United States yet,” Chilcote said. “They can’t get into this country. The Canadians are not allowed to come down here, so we don’t see them. But once the government changes the rules, they allow them to get in here, then I think we will be seeing a lot more of them.”

The Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba saw a similar drop-off in international tourism. For the motel located along the old Route 66, international tourism made up 40% of business before the pandemic, owner Connie Echols said. The Wagon Wheel hosted guests from Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, the UK, Canada and South Africa.

“They all seem to love Route 66,” Echols said. “It’s like a prestige thing to get to travel all of Route 66 in the U.S.”

She said the motel had half the income of a normal year in 2020, and international tourists would commonly cancel reservations made earlier in the year as pandemic conditions worsened. The Wagon Wheel is not expecting many international tourists to return until next year.

“There’s a lot of things in the area to do,” Echols said. “And I think more people are traveling Route 66 because they can’t go out of the country.”

For other destinations, like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, the loss of international tourism came during an already challenging year. In a typical year, the museum saw visitors from a dozen countries around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, China, Japan and many European countries. International tourists came to the museum after reading Twain’s books to see the inspiration behind his stories.

Due to the pandemic, the museum was forced to operate on a deficit and limit its hours to stay open, according to Executive Director James Lundgren. He expects only 70% of the museum’s total 2019 attendance to return this year.

“Every visitor is important for us,” Lundgren said, “whether they come from Illinois or Missouri or China.”

As borders eventually re-open, the Missouri Division of Tourism will be continuing partnerships with international travel companies to bring foreign tourists back into the state.

“We know that there’s going to be a lot of competition for international visitors when the global visitor economy reopens in the next couple of years,” Foutes said. “And so it is important to maintain that brand awareness and stay in front of those consumers.”


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