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Grand Canyon business owners: Tourists returning, but not like before the pandemic

Grand Canyon National Park has seen a rebound in domestic visitors in 2021, but not enough to compensate for the volume of international travelers the park usually attracts, officials say.

Since May 2020, parts of the park have been accessible for tourists who abide by COVID-19 guidelines, which instructs people who aren’t fully vaccinated to wear face masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces, among other measures. Local businesses still are adjusting to reduced visitation as a result of the pandemic in 2020.

“This year, our numbers are trending up as the country gets vaccinated and people are more comfortable traveling again,” Superintendent Ed Keable said in mid-July. “But we’re not at 100%. We’re somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe 70 to 75%.”

The park saw about 6.2 million visitors in 2019, Keable said. About 50% fewer tourists visited the park in 2020, in part because of its closure for seven weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through June 2021, about 1.8 million people have visited, according to Park Service data.

Keable said about 30% to 40% of tourists are traditionally international travelers.

Former President Donald Trump in March 2020 established strict restrictions on travelers coming into the U.S., and the Biden administration has maintained those. Officials said the surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has halted reopening the U.S. to European travelers, according to CNN.

The ride hasn’t been easy, some small business owners say.

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Wes Neal, co-owner of Bright Angel Bicycles, said overall business has been better than expected, “but still not what it was.” The small, family-owned business rents bikes, leads tours and works with families to make sure they experience the Grand Canyon safely.

“Our guided tour and our shuttle service have been greatly reduced,” Neal said. “We’re doing less than half of what we used to do.”

Some local businesses have experienced a surge in visitors, but they may not have enough staff to handle the influx. One Tusayan restaurant general manager told Marketplace they were hiring for every position. Visitors have faced long lines, crowded shuttles and full parking lots. The Grand Canyon’s website indicates the South Entrance Station can have wait times up to two hours.

Other local businesses have adjusted their daily operations to meet the reduced demand.

“When there’s a lot more people, I remember we used to run around like there was never a break,” said Artisha Charley, staff member at Bright Angel Bicycles. “Now you do run around, but not as much as before – because again, it’s really slow now.”

Even through various local mandates and regulations, Bright Angel Bicycles continues to prepare for the next customer.

“We strive to continue,” Neal said. “If you get knocked down, you get back up.”

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About 30% to 40% of tourists to the Grand Canyon are traditionally international travelers.