COVID challenges continue for tourism, Nungesser says

Staff Report

Tourism remains one of Louisiana’s biggest assets, but latest spike in COVID cases continues to concern Lt. Gov. Billy Nunngesser.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nunngesser

Nunngesser, whose office oversees the state Department of Tourism, said the revenue drawn from visitors to Louisiana attractions has helped fund other departments under his umbrella.

In a visit last week to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Nungesser said the money generated from tourism has helped fund Louisiana State Parks, the State Library of Louisiana, the Louisiana State Museum, the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, and Volunteer Louisiana, among other agencies.

“We have to take tourism money to fund gaps, including $800,000 to libraries that provide internet services all through the state,” he said.

He said he was praying that the fourth COVID spike would not shut down big tourism events. Two major events – the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival – were scrapped since he made the address last week.

Nungesser also made his comments the same day Gov. John Bel Edwards reinstated the mask mandate for indoor public settings.

“I support his decision,” he said. “We’ve made masks available to visitors at state welcome centers and tourist sites.

Louisiana logged total of 53.2 million visitors who contributed $1.9 billion to the state coffers in 2019, he said.

“That’s $1,100 per Louisiana family that you and I didn’t have to pay,” Nungesser said.

Figures were not yet available for 2020, but small towns and rural communities drew more visitors, while fewer tourists visited larger cities in Louisiana, he said.

But the process of rebuilding tourism after the pandemic is different from other setbacks.

“Everybody wanted to help after hurricanes in New Orleans and Lake Charles, but last year everyone got hit by COVID,” Nungesser said. “Every state is ramping up its tourism departments.”

Of the 21 state parks and 18 tourist sites, only two showed a profit last year, he said.

“One thing we know from the shutdown last year is that people used state parks and bought RVs in record numbers and they’re doing outdoor things,” Nungesser said. “We want to highlight the state parks and the improvements we’ve made.”

He said he was told by Commission of Administration Jay Dardenne to close seven state parks when he took office.

Nungesser said it was not an option for him.

“Sheriffs cleaned up a lot of parks, left money open, and if not for the hurricane and tornado in north Louisiana,” he said. Our goal through our private public partnership is to have all our parks making money and not cost any tax dollars.”

He has overseen promotions including one additional night free after a three-night stay, along with construction of new cabins.

Through Oct. 22, Nungesser’s office is seeking public input on ideas for state parks, ranging from ziplines to canoeing, that will draw more tourists to those facilities.

“We’re looking for any ideas you want to do at state parks, but we want to make sure it benefits a community, and we won’t open a restaurant,” Nungesser said. “We don’t want to take away from local businesses.”

An ad spot featuring country vocalist Lauren Daigle singing “You Are My Sunshine” is set to launch this fall as part of the plan to bolster state tourism, he said.