New service by Aha! And Southwest Airlines have fueled growth in the Fresno market. Record travel statistics are expected out of Fresno Yosemite International Airport this year. File photo

published on April 20, 2022 - 2:16 PM
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Despite record high inflation, energy prices and the continuing pandemic, travelers are still hitting the road and taking to the air.

U.S. airlines have only seen an increase in travelers since 2021.

Statistics from the Department of Transportation show that U.S. airlines carried 46.3 million scheduled service passengers in January 2022, a 33% increase since January 2021 — but still 34% less than January 2020.

Domestic passengers made up 89% of total enplanements, with international passengers accounting for 11% of total enplanements.

That upward is trend is taking off in the Fresno area as well.

Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) Aviation Director Henry Thompson said the airport has surpassed its travel numbers from 2019, with the upward trend beginning in May 2020.

FAT closed 2021 with nearly one million passengers enplaning and one million deplaning through the airport. FAT is on track to surpass 2 million passengers by the end of 2022.

New routes from ExpressJet value carrier Aha! and Southwest Airlines have made up part of the airport’s growth in the market.

The Covid-19 pandemic spurred many people to take interest in nature and the outdoors, with the Central Valley being a target destination for out-of-state travelers.

“During the pandemic, passengers were looking for more outdoors vacations and destinations, and fell into that category with our natural national parks and locations that have been pulling passengers,” Thompson said.

Contributing to increased travel is the lifting of Covid restrictions across the U.S. and abroad.

Though plane seats are being filled, costs for passengers have gone up.

The recent hike in oil and gas prices is leaving a noticeable impact in the form of higher ticket prices, but Thompson said the industry hopes the increase will be temporary and that prices will stabilize.

Even with these difficulties, Thompson said the airport will continue its growth.

“We’re growing. We’re expanding our facilities to meet that growth. We are continually working on new destinations that our community wants and we have good airline partners that are open to new destinations as long as we can support them in our market,” Thompson said.

The local market saw a strong 2021 with tourism and travel, with increases in hotel occupancy in Fresno and Clovis. The average daily rate of occupied rooms at the end of 2021 nearly matches those of 2019, according to the Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We are seeing much more interest in a variety of events, conferences, outdoor events, sporting events. People are definitely interested in coming to Fresno — especially statewide organizations — because we are centrally located and our hotels offer a great value when compared to other gateway cities in California,” said Vanessa Puopolo, vice president of the Visitors Bureau.

Puopolo said the bureau expects a strong year for travel this summer, with pent up demand for outdoor leisure driving families to visit national parks and lakes.

Beside recreation, a big draw to the Fresno and Clovis area is the region’s health care industry. Puopolo said the area has world-class medical facilities — and there is an expectation that it will draw many more visitors from outside the area.

The bureau is also seeing attention from travelers from the East Coast, especially during the spring months.

“People are really wanting a unique, authentic experience, and Fresno is able to offer that in ways that some of the other larger cities can’t,” Puopolo said.

It’s not just the Central Valley seeing more visitors. The entire state is seeing a strong boost in travel numbers.

Peter Hillan, spokesperson for the California Hotel and Lodging Association, said the travel industry is working hard to put the word out that the state is open for business, especially to Europe and Asia, which makes up a big part of California’s travel clientele.

“Folks are starting to explore places that may have a little more elbow room, which opens up places like the Central Valley for new tourism opportunities,” Hillan said.

Since California remains a popular travel destination, Hillan said that hotel owners and operators are playing a long investment even though the travel industry is still in a “recovery mode” to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

A major issue in the lodging and hospitality industry is finding and retaining employees. Some 40% of hotel employees left for other parts of the country during the pandemic — or left the industry all together, Hillan said.

Employees are starting to return, but it’s going to be some time before the hotels are fully staffed, along with restaurants — a major part of the tourism industry.

The pandemic did halt both domestic and international travel in 2020, but travelers in the Central Valley have been taking more destination vacations in the last two years.

“Most people that lost their trips due to covid in 2020 were able to re-book in 2021. For those going to Europe, they waited to re-book in 2022,” said Linda Jason, a certified travel agent and owner of Linda Your Travelmaker in Fresno.

Jason said that many of her clients are booking trips for countries in Europe including England, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

Destinations such as Mexico and Hawaii, which were less strict with their Covid-19 protocols for travelers, were also popular choices for her clients.

Though the cruise ship industry did see a major blow to business in 2020, Jason said travelers are booking cruise ship tours to Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe and Australia.

Jason said inflation hasn’t affected ticket prices for coach seats, but first-class ticket prices have gone up dramatically.

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