North Dakota’s hotel occupancy statistics have increased in recent months to rates that rival that of years past before the pandemic.

So how has the hotel industry recovered as the COVID-19 pandemic presses on? Joe Cozart, the former general manager of the Grand Forks Ramada Inn who now runs the OpXGroup consulting firm, said drastically increased occupancy rates over the last few months can be contributed to multiple factors, but there is still room to grow.

“It’s definitely gotten better since (June),” Cozart said. “It was around 40%, and now it’s up around 59%. That’s an improvement in the last three months, so we’ve had a good summer. The weather has had a lot to do with that. We call it ‘construction season.’ We’ve had some tourists and some groups, but not a lot. Not like we did in 2019 and backwards, and the Canadian border is still closed. That hasn’t recovered.”

Canada is letting fully vaccinated travelers into the country, but with the U.S. not allowing any Canadians across the border yet, businesses in the region have still yet to reap the benefits of extra tourism. Cozart said once the border opens, the hotel industry will receive a large boost in occupancy rates.

“(It will be) a minimum of 25%,” Cozart said. “It’s always been that level of an impact. Our occupancy would definitely go up, and you would see the city at closer to 70% (occupancy) when that opens up with travel being good right now and people moving… I think the Canadian border right now, for Grand Forks, is our number one issue.”

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As for the pandemic itself, Cozart said those in the hotel industry are weary of restrictions returning. The return of mask mandates and other precautionary measures might impact the industry.

“The Delta variant concerns and people going back to masks, that’s concerning to us,” Cozart said. “How long will the good times last, or are the bad times coming back? Will there be new variations of it?”

The answers to those questions have yet to come, but Cozart said he doesn’t see the Delta variant causing hotel occupancy in the region to plummet back to where it was in the first days of the pandemic in early 2020.

“I can only measure it by what we’re seeing, and I don’t see people wanting to not travel anymore like we did the last time,” Cozart said. “We probably don’t feel like the Delta variant is going to affect us to the level of what we were in pandemic-wise. Will there be some effect? Of course. But, our occupancy in Grand Forks has been the highest it’s been since COVID (began). So, I don’t know if there’s anything that we have to do about the Delta variant, because it doesn’t seem to be slowing us down, and if it is, it’s in ways like the border. That would be a measurable way to (increase occupancy). The rest is just speculation.”

Through July 2021, Grand Forks has a 45.3% occupancy rate. Last year at the same time, it was at 37.9% occupancy rate. Total room revenue is up just under 21% for the year from this time last year, as well. On the flip side, at this point in 2019, Grand Forks was at a 55.6% occupancy rate.

Julie Rygg, executive director of Visit Greater Grand Forks, said even though occupancy is rebounding compared to where it was last year, there is still a long way to go before Grand Forks sees consistent occupancy rates rivaling those of years before the pandemic.

“Last year, we were at a different point,” Rygg said. “Obviously we’re still in the pandemic, but we are seeing more events happening, more people are traveling. We live in very much a drive market, so a lot of people travel here for a long weekend or a few days, but on the flip side of that, we’re still seeing with the border still being closed to Canadians coming in, and we’re still seeing an impact for that.”

Rygg said even if the Delta variant doesn’t negatively impact the hotel industry in a serious way moving forward, it will still take time for occupancy numbers to consistently rise to the level they were at before COVID-19.

“We’re expecting everything to rebound, but it’ll definitely take some time,” Rygg said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a light switch. If the switch went back on everything was back to normal.”