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Waco tourism expected to surpass pre-pandemic numbers as Texas reopens

Posted at 10:58 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 23:58:16-05

WACO, TX — Wednesday marks the first day Texas will not have mask mandate and will be allowed to open at 100%.

It's a move experts say is the first step to getting businesses and tourism back, if not better than before the pandemic.

"I'm even like very pro-mask, but we're starting to reach that point where it is a little bit safer to start opening things up," said Jenny Lane, who is visiting Texas.

Lane and her family members are considering moving to Texas from Utah and Arizona. They say they're drawn in by country living and that many businesses still have the choice when it comes to enforcing masks.

"I've been commenting the whole time we've been here that, like, I think even though the mask mandate is being lifted, people are going to still decide to be courteous," Lane said.

Waco Tours, which relies entirely on tourists, was forced to sell three of its eight tour vans and let go half of its staff because of the pandemic. They say they're only making about 30% to 40% of their pre-pandemic profits.

"I think people were just hesitant to travel, and with the shutdown and lockdown and different things, people were not getting out and about, but man we have seen people coming and we're turning people away on tours," said Waco Tours co-founder David Ridley.

As tourists start returning, Waco Tours has been selling out on tour availability and will be looking to hire more staff come April. They're looking to hire guides, drivers as well as people with a boater's license for their river cruise.

Waco Tours will still require masks for passengers in its vans, and says Texas opening to 100% couldn't have come at a better time as March kicks off Spring Break and the summer travel season.

"What I see in this is Waco is going to continue to grow, and we're going to continue to have tourism, and what's going to happen is Waco is going to be flooded in the next 5 to 10 years," Ridley said.

According to the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau, Waco saw 56% fewer tourists in 2020 compared to 2019. That's 1,384,893 less people giving back to the local economy.

"Oh we can't wait to get back to normal. As we get closer to herd immunity, you're gonna see those numbers go sky high, and we feel like they're going to be higher than a couple of years ago," said Carla Pendergraft, Director of Marketing for the Waco Convention Center & Visitors Bureau.

Convention center officials say so far, they're getting more bookings for 2022 than they are for this year.