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As Tourism Picks Up Again, Resort Areas See Trouble Hiring Enough Staff

NOEL KING, HOST:

The tourism industry is coming back in this country but not without challenges. Resorts in tourist destinations like Wisconsin Dells are trying to hire enough workers to stay open. Here's Rob Mentzer from Wisconsin Public Radio.

ROB MENTZER, BYLINE: It's early in the summer tourism season in Wisconsin Dells and it is already sweltering. At a water park at the Wilderness Resort, kids are waiting in line for their turn at the waterslides. Grandmothers are floating on the Lazy River. Brandon Hensley (ph) drove up from St. Louis with his wife and daughter. Like a lot of people, they didn't take a vacation last year during the pandemic. Now that they're vaccinated, they're ready to have some fun again.

BRANDON HENSLEY: You would think that it would feel more weird. But, I mean, I think humans are really good at adjusting really fast. So within the first day and you're around everybody, and it just feels normal real quick.

MENTZER: Wisconsin Dells is a big-time tourist draw. There are only about 6,000 residents. But each year, more than 4 million people flock to the resorts and family attractions. People here say all signs point to 2021 possibly being a record-breaking year. That's true at tourist draws across the country, as people who put off traveling last year are catching up. But the tourism boom is creating a strain on employers, who say they're struggling to find enough workers.

JOE ECK: It's been a challenge. And it'll be something that we continue to battle through the summer.

MENTZER: Joe Eck is the chief operating officer at the wilderness. Like a lot of employers, they're trying lots of things to attract workers.

ECK: We have more domestic staff than we did in 2020 and definitely more than we did in 2019. But it's through increased recruiting efforts, sign-on bonuses, referral bonuses, new competitive wages. All of those are elements that are helping us bring in that staff.

MENTZER: In rural tourist spots in particular, businesses often rely on an influx of foreign exchange students every year who work summer jobs as part of what's called the J-1 visa program. The pandemic virtually halted that program last year. Nationally, participation plunged by 95%. This year, American businesses would love to hire these student workers. But many foreign embassies are still closed or seriously backlogged. Employers in the Dells say they're hoping they can get half the foreign workers they usually see. It's not just Wisconsin Dells where the labor market is tight. In Pigeon Forge, Tenn., home of Dollywood, some restaurants and other businesses have now limited their hours. Leon Downey of the visitors bureau there says attractions are desperate to hire.

LEON DOWNEY: Some of our employers are offering to move, relocate people, you know? It's one of those critical positions - and, you know, providing housing for them, you know, paying to move them and help them with their moving expenses.

MENTZER: Of course, the main way employers attract more workers is by raising wages. In northern Ohio, the Cedar Point amusement park started the summer with closed attractions and long lines due to short staffing. Then it announced it would double starting wages to $20 an hour. And it seems to be luring new workers. Back in the Dells, John Chasten of the Kalahari Resort says the wage growth is real.

JOHN CHASTEN: There hasn't been minimum wage jobs in the Dells for years. Our average hourly wage is up quite a bit, which comes from us increasing the wages of our current employees, hiring at higher wages. And so we're just at a different place than we were even in 2019.

MENTZER: These higher wages are translating into higher prices for hotel rooms, for attractions and for restaurants. But so far, at least, that doesn't seem to be discouraging tourists eager to take a summer vacation again.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Mentzer in Wausau, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACIFIC COLISEUM'S "WAVE CATALYST (HIGH TIDE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.