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Could electric vehicle charging infrastructure boost Louisiana tourism’s post-pandemic recovery?

Public Tesla Superchargers at the Holiday Inn Downtown Alexandria in downtown
Alexandria,...
Public Tesla Superchargers at the Holiday Inn Downtown Alexandria in downtown Alexandria, Louisiana.(Loren Ryland)
Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 1:05 PM CST
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - The prosperity of Louisiana’s tourism industry is doing what it does best: rebounding after a major disruption.

The 2020-2021 season has seen more than its fair share of hurdles, but a combination of careful planning and tireless efforts by Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, the Louisiana Office of Tourism (LOT), and hospitality professionals around the state have us on the path to recovery.

Prior to the pandemic, Louisiana tourism reveled in eight consecutive years of record-breaking growth. An astounding 53.2 million visitors outlaid $18.9 billion during their travels in 2019 according to the Louisiana Travel Association (LTA).

From February to April of 2020, lockdowns decimated the global tourism industry and triggered mass layoffs of over 120,000 people in Louisiana. Many of these jobs have not yet returned, but there are other encouraging signs of life.

While the number of people employed in tourism was still down 21 percent in September 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, bookings of Louisiana’s vacation rentals for the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday were up 30 percent over the same weekend in 2019. Visitors to the LouisianaTravel.com website in September 2021 have also nearly returned to 2019 levels.

Equally impressive is the travel spending stats from this past August, a month that usually represents a lull in our hospitality season, where vacationers in Louisiana spent $1.1 billion, down just 10 percent from the summer of 2019.

Over 11,000 of the tourism jobs that were eliminated are directly tied to the absence of international travelers. After 18 months of border closures, fully vaccinated international travelers from 33 countries are now permitted to enter the United States, a welcome sign of progress for the upcoming travel season.

Although we are not yet free from COVID-19, and domestic and international travel markets still face many barriers to a full-scale comeback, vaccine rollouts and eased travel restrictions mean that one of Louisiana’s most valuable industries is likely to see a return of its beloved travelers.

That said, the world has changed in countless ways due to the pandemic, and paying special attention to new consumer patterns can help us make predictions and map out our creative strategy. Many of tourism’s key players are doing just that.

Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report affirms consumers’ growing desire for more sustainable accommodation options, from lodging to dining to getting around in their destinations. Research shows that this trend was picking up steam even before the pandemic.

As they explore Louisiana’s iconic natural and cultural attractions, many domestic and international travelers have traditionally opted for passenger vehicles as their main means of transport outside of major metro areas. But now standard internal combustion engines (ICEs) have some competition.

The market for electric vehicles is on the rise. Just this past summer, a report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) assessed the rapidly growing market for zero-emission vehicles in the United States and projected that the number of electric vehicles riding the roads would top 26 million by 2030.

As Louisiana expands electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, it presents an opportunity to capture an emerging market of tourists, boost foot traffic around each charging location, and increase visitor spending to revitalize the industry.

These electrically powered travelers differ from their gas-powered counterparts due to the time needed to get a full charge. It takes as little as 20 minutes for DC fast chargers (Level 1), around 8 hours for the more affordable version common at many public stations (Level 2), and up to 40 hours for standard three-prong wall outlets (Level 1).

Just as the electric vehicle in general comes with its pros and cons, each tier of charging capacity has characteristics making it more practical for certain locations or types of traveler. Level 1 chargers, while far more expensive, are more likely to entice fast-paced travelers eager to make a quick pit stop and then continue on their journey.

That’s certainly been the case for the Holiday Inn Downtown Alexandria, where eight fast-charging outlets attract a stream of five to ten Tesla drivers every day.

According to the hotel’s assistant general manager Jennifer Lacombe, travelers passing through the area first locate the Tesla Supercharger on their GPS, stop by the hotel to replenish their batteries, and wander into the hotel’s full-service restaurant to grab a bite and use the restrooms while they wait.

“Since our chargers are open to the public and we have a full-service menu at the Levee Restaurant and Bar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they’re normally either here eating at the restaurant or staying overnight and contributing to the hotel,” Lacombe said. This small but steady stream of economic activity is a glimmer of success for downtown Alexandria’s long fought revitalization efforts.

The Holiday Inn Downtown Alexandria and the Levee Restaurant and Bar in
downtown Alexandria,...
The Holiday Inn Downtown Alexandria and the Levee Restaurant and Bar in downtown Alexandria, Louisiana.(Loren Ryland)

If you’re wondering whether the benefits of EV chargers neighboring a destination are limited to high-powered stations in urban settings, just ask the staff at the Giddy Up in Folsom.

An hour north of New Orleans, the Giddy Up serves a local community of not quite 1,000 people, but they’re building a reputation in south Louisiana as an EV charging hotspot with great coffee as a bonus.

Since the café's charging capacity is not as fast as the Level 1, “some people study or work and grab food or drink while they charge up,” according to Mario Allen, a barista at the café. “We definitely get more out of town customers migrating here to use the service,” Allen said.

A main hurdle for mass adoption of electric vehicles in the U.S. is “range anxiety,” the feeling when drivers are unsure whether they’ll be able to find a charger along their route.

Avid road-trippers Bill and Jackie Hope of Covington are looking forward to taking their new 2021 Tesla Model Y for a leisurely holiday in the coming months, a momentous shift from their road trip go-to: an Airstream trailer towed by their diesel truck. They could imagine choosing hotels or restaurants along the way that would allow them to charge up during their journey.

The Hope’s usually find that charging up at home is perfect for their inner-city travel needs, but when it comes time to visit friends in Texas as they often do, Bill, 75, said, “I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable taking a long-distance trip because on my Tesla’s screen, it will tell you where the chargers are.”

With so many free apps and maps available for EV drivers to locate nearby chargers, investing in charging stations near state parks, cultural centers, museums, hotels, restaurants, and bars allows each establishment to capitalize on free advertising opportunities.

While Louisiana’s enterprises and attractions can reap the benefits of electric vehicle tourism on a one-off basis, a collective push will allow its full potential to come to fruition.

Placing chargers throughout the state will take a collaborative effort by industry leaders to plan, fund, and operate these stations, but the compounding rewards from the electric vehicle transition are “at least an order of magnitude greater than charging infrastructure costs,” according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Financing by public-private partnerships involving utility companies, governing bodies, and tourism bureaus can empower tourism destinations to draw travelers with EV charging stations. A number of these partnerships have successfully implemented grants, rebates, and other incentives for short and long-stay tourism operations in Oregon, New Jersey, and Virginia, to name a few.

Charging up Louisiana can charge up tourism’s revival, stimulate the economy, and improve quality of life for its strong-spirited people.

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