ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If this were a normal summer, tourists from all over the world would be vacationing here right now. The U.S. welcomed almost 80 million international visitors in 2019, and July and August are two of the busiest months.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Well, this year, of course, is different. COVID-related restrictions are still in place for visitors from Canada, Europe and the U.K. as well as China, India and others.
ROGER DOW: We have to look at what the consequences will be for the tourism industry if we don't lift these restrictions.
SHAPIRO: Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. He says the economic blow extends far beyond airlines and hotel chains.
DOW: Eighty-three percent of travel is small businesses, and American small businesses cannot hang on much longer.
SHAPIRO: So we decided to check in on a few, and we start our journey in San Francisco.
JOSH ARMEL: We started this business about six years ago with just one VW bus and a dream.
VIRGINE DE PAEPE: And a vision.
KELLY: Virgine de Paepe and her husband, Josh Armel, run the Painted Ladies Tour Company. The name is a nod to the city's colorful Victorian houses and to the couple's unconventional tour vehicles. That would be a fleet of seven brightly colored vintage VW buses.
ARMEL: They also have eyelashes.
DE PAEPE: I wanted to make them into ladies instead of guys.
SHAPIRO: The couple says a third of their riders typically come from abroad, mostly Canada, Australia and the U.K.
ARMEL: Right now, we're not seeing any of them.
DE PAEPE: A big loss in international - and personally, I really miss them because we love them.
ARMEL: As far as web traffic's concerned right now, we're getting - about 99% of our web traffic is domestic.
SHAPIRO: In other words, international tourists are not even looking for them right now.
KELLY: Over in Flagstaff, Ariz., Grand Canyon Adventures takes sightseers up to the south rim of the canyon.
KOREY SEYLER: You know, we can never make it more beautiful, but we feel like we add to the appreciation of what they're seeing up there.
KELLY: Korey Seyler is the general manager. He says in a normal summer, up to 30% of his customers come from abroad. That international business has evaporated.
SHAPIRO: But in its place, he's seeing a new crop of domestic travelers who may be forgoing faraway summer vacations in favor of something closer to home. Others, he says, may simply crave the serenity of wide open spaces.
SEYLER: This is something that people need to heal the human spirit, getting into natural spaces because they were cooped up for so long.
KELLY: Our final stop - New York City, where Victor Ortega manages Black Iron Burger, a small, family-owned chain of restaurants.
VICTOR ORTEGA: We were hoping in July they were going to open the borders, but now with the new delta variant and all that stuff, it's not really opening. Maybe by August, they'll start opening. Right now - nothing compared to what we used to get. This summer, it was - 80% was tourists.
SHAPIRO: He says the restaurants are now operating with a skeleton crew. And for Victor, this situation is personal. His wife and kids are back in Spain, where he's from.
ORTEGA: I can't really bring them back until things get better with the business. Our salaries kind of - you know, going to get better, and everybody - you know, you can afford to live in the city with a family.
KELLY: So what does the future hold for international tourism and for these small businesses?
SHAPIRO: There's still no date for reopening U.S. borders to travelers from restricted countries. But Virgine and Josh from the Painted Ladies Tour Company already have their sights set on 2022.
DE PAEPE: 2022 - bring it on.
KELLY: Until then, they'll still be navigating the ups and downs of hilly San Francisco and the ups and downs of running a business during a pandemic.
(SOUNDBITE OF TROUBLE'S "SNAKE EYES")
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