NERCRD COVID-19 Data Brief 22-02; By Jason Entsminger, Luyi Han, and Stephan J. Goetz; NERCRD, Penn State University; July 27, 2022.

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Tourism and recreation are important economic activities in the 12 states and one Federal District that make up the Northeast. In 2019, the tourism sector – composed of arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services – accounted for $212.01 billion in economic activity in the region (Table 1). For many Northeastern rural and coastal communities, such activities are of enhanced importance, in some communities accounting for more than 10% of local GDP (Figure 1) and more than a quarter (25%) of total employment in 2019 (Figure 2). The following year, tourism and recreation were severely impacted as public health measures were implemented to protect populations from COVID-19, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. By the end of 2020, the region had experienced a $71.61 billion decline in tourism GDP, or 33.8%. (Table 1), with resounding effects on employment and wages. This data brief characterizes these changes in the Northeast. Comparisons between rural and metro counties are highlighted, showing that different tourism and recreation economies experienced the pandemic’s effects differently too.

Figure 1 Share of county GDP attributable to tourism in 2019, as percent of county’s total GDP. Click on image for larger view.

 Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states

Figure 2 Share of county employment attributable to leisure and hospitality in Quarter 3 of 2019, as percent of county’s total employment. Click on image for larger view.

Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states 

Descriptive Statistics

At the height of the tourism season in the year prior to the onset of COVID-19, there were 197,338 establishments employing 3.2 million people in the Northeast’s leisure and hospitality sector, a crucial element of tourism and recreation economies (Table 2). Wages to regional workers in the sector totaled $90.91 billion – or an average weekly wage of $482 (before gratuities) per employee. One year later, impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic on the Northeast’s leisure and hospitality employment were pronounced. While the number of leisure and hospitality establishments in the region remained relatively stable between 2019 and 2020[1], the number of employees and total wages paid fell. The average county in the Northeast lost 4,146 employees in 2020. Total wages paid to workers fell to $66.3 billion, a 27% decline and loss of $24.6 billion. However, average weekly wages for tourism and recreation workers in the region went up, increasing $19.32 in 2020 to $501.24 per week.    

Impacts varied by geography, just as reliance on the tourism and recreation economy varied prior to the pandemic (Figures 1 and 2). These variations are critical, as overall figures can mask changes in the distribution of impacts, including potential gains in certain localities. Consider differences in leisure and hospitality employment and wages among Northeastern states for rural and metro counties combined (Table 2). On whole, the region saw a 27% decline in total wages paid, but some states experienced greater losses[2] and some smaller.[3] While many states saw average weekly wages increase, in the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania the average leisure and hospitality worker earned less per week in 2020 than prior to the pandemic. In terms of total economic activity (GDP), the tourism sector in Delaware, New York, and Maine experienced losses above the regional average (Table 1). West Virginia and Rhode Island had the smallest percentage declines in tourism GDP in the region, at 21.1% and 24.6%, with losses totaling $640 million and $810 million, respectively.  

In many cases the tourism and recreation economy in rural counties fared better than in metropolitan ones, however. For example, on whole, rural counties in the Northeast lost 27% of tourism sector GDP during the pandemic, while metro-designated counties lost 34.2% (Table 1). Connecticut was the only state in the region where percentage decline in tourism sector GDP was greater in rural counties than in metro counties. Employment data also point to smaller declines in rural areas; Northeast rural counties lost 23.75% of total[4] leisure and hospitality workers while metro-designated counties experienced a 29.85% decline.  In fact, in New Jersey and Rhode Island rural-designated counties saw increases in employment. Rural counties in New Jersey were also the only group to show an increase (3.17%) from 2019 to 2020 in total wages paid to leisure and hospitality workers.

For the region as a whole, average weekly wages in rural counties declined 1.10% from 2019, while across the region’s metro counties leisure and hospitality workers saw an average increase of 6.12% in their weekly earnings. However, changes in average weekly earnings at high season were not consistent. In half of the Northeastern states rural workers gained more than their urban counterparts in terms of their average weekly earnings. The biggest differences were in West Virginia (rural counties: 12.92% increase; urban counties: 4.77% increase), Maryland (rural counties: 12.26% increase; urban counties: 7.87% increase), Vermont (rural counties: 10.28% increase; urban counties: 8.37% increase), and New York (rural counties: 7.01% increase; urban counties: 5.94% increase). In the states where rural workers lost average weekly wages, the losses were large compared to metro counterparts; Massachusetts (rural counties: 16.93% decline; urban counties: 7.21% increase), Pennsylvania (rural counties: 12.83% decline; urban counties: 5.66% increase), New Jersey (rural counties: 8.71% decline; urban counties: 9.27% increase), and Maine (rural counties: 7.22% decline; urban counties: 8.91% increase) had the largest gaps between rural and urban workers for sector average weekly wage growth.

Figure 3 Change in county GDP from tourism between 2019 and 2020, as percent change. Click on image for larger view.

Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states

Figure 4 Change in county leisure and hospitality employment between 2019 and 2020, as a percent change. Click on image for larger view.

Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states

Geographic disparities are further highlighted at the county level. Figures 3, 4 and 5 show, respectively, the percent change between 2019 and 2020 in annual GDP for the tourism sector and in 3rd quarter leisure and hospitality employment and wages – the height of seasonal employment in tourism and recreation. Figure 6 presents a summary of results for wage and employment data. Most Northeastern counties experienced losses in tourism GDP between 10 and 30 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. There were rural and coastal counties in nearly every state, however, that saw declines in tourism sector GDP in excess of the regional average (33%). Particularly hard hit were Schoharie and Seneca Counties in New York, Monroe County in West Virginia, Atlantic County in New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Most counties also saw declines in employment during the onset of the pandemic; at the seasonal height, only five Northeast counties – all of which were in West Virginia – saw an increase in leisure and hospitality employment (Figure 4). Of those, three are designated as rural. The geography of wage changes (Figure 5) is more diversified across the region. Forty-one counties in the Northeast experienced declines in both employment and wages for the leisure and hospitality sector, and roughly half (22) are rural. Often these communities were clustered together.

Figure 5 Change in county leisure and hospitality wages between 2019 and 2020, as a percent change. Click on image for larger view.

Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states

Figure 6 Categorical summary of changes to employment and wages in leisure and hospitality by county. Click on image for larger view.

Map showing county-level variation in Northeast states


The general trend across the Northeast was to experience losses to the tourism and recreation economy in 2020, during the pandemic’s onset. For many rural counties, however, these losses appear to have been mitigated compared to urban zones. This is likely due to increased demand for rural recreation and tourism, away from population centers. Wages largely rose, likely among those who maintained their roles in leisure and hospitality (Figure 6). One possible driver is that premiums were paid to those who staffed frontline positions. Patterns of change were often clustered in multi-county regions, often in line with geographic features related to outdoor recreation.  


[1] In the 3rd Quarter of 2020, there were a total of 195,488 leisure and hospitality establishments in the Northeast, engaging a total of 2.26 million employees.

[2] District of Columbia (42.23% decline) and New York (31.81% decline)

[3] West Virginia (14.78% decline), New Hampshire (15.30% decline), Delaware (18.99% decline), and Connecticut (19.9% decline)

[4] In terms of average number of leisure and hospitality employees per county, Northeast communities experienced declines of 21.90% in rural counties and 32.01% in metro counties.

Data Supplement

Download detailed Northeast state-level data here.

Suggested Citation

Entsminger, J.S., Han, L., and Goetz, S.J. (2022) Impacts of COVID-19 on Northeast Tourism and Recreation Economies. University Park, PA: Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. COVID-19 Data Brief 22-02.

Data Sources

  • S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (2022) Regional Data | Gross Domestic Product (GDP by County and Metropolitan Area) | Real GDP in Chained Dollars. (accessed February 2022)
  • S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022) Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages | NAICS-Based County-level Data. (accessed February 2022)

About this Series

These issues briefs are designed to provide information quickly or stimulate discussion, and they have not undergone regular peer review. NERCRD receives core funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (award # 2021-51150-34733) as well as from Hatch/Multi-State Appropriations under Project #PEN04633 and Accession #1014522, the Northeastern Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, and the Pennsylvania State University, College of Agricultural Sciences. Any opinions are solely those of the authors.