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by Kathy Ruff

With Memorial Day 2018 in the history books and schools soon closed for the summer, activity in the tourism industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania begins to blossom.

According to The Economic Impact of Travel and Tourism in Pennsylvania, the four counties comprising the Poconos – Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne – generated 8.5 percent of the state’s visitor spending.

That spending breaks out into five primary categories as indicated:

• 14.4 percent - Lodging

• 20.6 percent - Food & Beverage

• 17.6 percent - Retail

• 19.1 percent - Recreation

• 28.3 percent - Transportation

“We generate 25.2 million visitors in all four counties with a calendar year that relates to $3.5 billion in economic impact,” said Chris Barrett, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors’ Bureau, Stroudsburg. “We were one of the fastest-growing regions in the state. Our market is growing pretty steadily and it has been over the last few years. The employment is fairly substantial.”

The Poconos saw a 9.7 percent growth rate in traveler spending between 2015 and 2016, a growth to over $3.5 billion in regional spending.

The Poconos’ tourism industry employs 37.2 percent of the regional economy and drives 62 percent – two thirds – of its labor income.

Once a seasonal Pocono industry, that growth today spans into a year-round industry.

“Everybody assumes that most of our attendance comes during summer but it doesn’t,” said Barrett. “We’re a fairly strong destination all through the seasons. Fall is a very strong season and also winter because of all the ski resorts and outdoor activities related to winter. Then we go back to the spring with the rivers, lakes, biking, hiking. With the addition of the indoor water parks, that really smoothes out a little bit more the seasonality of things with the weather.”

One Carbon County business owner also sees the impact of the industry on the regional economy and his business operations.

“A visit to us or any of the outfitters generates more than double the amount of money that the outfitter actually gets in its coffers,” said Jerry McAward, president of Jim Thorpe River Sports and Northeast PA Kayak School.

McAward, who recently opened the Lehighton Outdoor Center – a nearly 12,000 sq. ft. facility that houses its rafting, biking and café offerings as well as a kayak school – sees the economic and business effects and opportunities.

“A business like ours that generates 25 to 30,000 visitors that actually stop here and spend time here, we know that half of our people stay somewhere, from a primitive campground, at the Inn at Jim Thorpe to the box hotels by the Turnpike or Mahoning Inn,” he said. “For more than half the year, we are planning … With the advent of this building on this site on the D&L trail, we have confidence that the shoulder seasons, which to us would be September, October and April, May, will be more a better part of the year than they had been previously as people’s vacationing habits have changed.”

Palmerton’s Blue Mountain Resort, a long-time ski facility, also has expanded its outdoor offerings to tap into the evolving vacationing habits to offer more to tourists including disc golf, laser tag, mountain biking and ropes courses.

“We provide clean, safe outdoor fun,” said Barb Green, president and CEO. “In my organization, now that we’re becoming less seasonal, we’ve added 60 new jobs in the last six years by expanding into the summer and it’s all tourism-related. We have some managers that they have a summer management task then a winter management task that’s different but it’s all the same thing: making sure that the guests have a great time at whatever we’re offering or they’re asking to participate in.”

Green sees the area’s appeal to nature fueling its tourism economy as the local industry shares its natural assets.

“In tourism, not only do you have an impact just on your own business but people have to drive in and out,” she said. “For every dollar they spend at my resort, they are probably spending a dollar at the local gas station or at the restaurant that’s down the street. I don’t think that the public is aware of how much more economic impact it brings. It has a multiplying effect.”

That multiplying effect draws a variety of people from the Northeast U.S. to the Poconos each year.

“The tourism industry has re-invented themselves to the point where they have created product that is very attractive to the current traveling public that is coming out of mostly the major megalopolis to our east,” said Chuck Leonard, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation, Stroudsburg. “They bring a lot of people into the community that come here to visit and leave their money behind and go home, so we don’t have to build water, sewer, housing for them. The growth that we’ve had in recent years has been very significant.”

In mid-2015, Monroe County saw the addition of Kalahari Resort and the expansion of Camelback Resort contributing to between 2,700 and 2,800 new jobs in a marketplace with 60,000 jobs.

Despite popular belief of the industry’s low wages, the competition for good employees actually has helped to increase wages in the county.

“One of our resorts basically was telling us they recently increased their wages for their lifeguards by $2 to $3 an hour and for many of their other employees by $1.50 to $2,” Leonard said. “Tourism plays a major role for us. We have a great deal of spinout. There’s a great deal of trickle down.”

Monroe County sees the traditional economic spinoff for lodging, transportation and restaurants, but it also sees other tourism-related draws.

“The Crossings are an attraction in their own right,” he said. “If you look at something like the casino, that’s enhanced our product mix in tourism. The old model used to be you bring a family in and you keep them on the property and they don’t go anywhere, that model has evolved. There’s a lot of businesses that do benefit.”

According to Leonard, people visiting the Poconos in the past have sparked business growth in other industries, including Cresco’s Weiler Corporation and Swiftwater’s Sanofi-Pasteur.

Undoubtedly, the tourism industry has fueled not only economic development but also been a catalytic environment to bond the family unit.

“We provide fun and a recharging experience, restorative experience, all the things that people do to feel better about themselves, their lives, their situations,” said McAward. “We are not changing the world doing what we do but we are the pit crew for all the people making everything work around for four states. We can help them feel better about things, get them recharged, get them fired up.”