A United Airlines flight rolls on the runway at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in April 2021.
Photo: Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority
EDITOR’S NOTE This story is adapted from the 2021-2022 edition of the Northern Nevada Guide, a 116-page specialty magazine published in late September by the Northern Nevada Business Weekly. Go here to read the digital edition
The COVID-19 pandemic created massive levels of pent-up demand for travel after a cancelation-filled 2020, and with Northern Nevada’s profile growing in recent years as an ideal western destination for shopping, hotels, casinos and an abundance of outdoor entertainment, no one knows this better than the crew at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
The hub for air travel in the region has seen drastic ups and downs in passenger counts over the past three years.
“(2019) was a phenomenal year for us. We served 4.5 million passengers and it was our best year in a decade. It was so exciting,” says Brian Kulpin, Reno-Tahoe International Airport Vice President of Marketing & Public Affairs. “And then the pandemic hit, and it was devastating.”
After the huge drop in air travel in 2020 — at one point, RNO saw a 96% drop in passengers in a matter of two weeks in April of that year, all coming after 56 consecutive months of passenger growth — it didn’t take long for numbers to skyrocket back up to above pre-COVID times.
“From May through July (2021), we were 110 percent ahead of the summer months in 2019,” Kulpin says.
In the wake of the pandemic, as more and more people relocate here from nearby states in search of ideal jobs, less-expensive housing and the region’s unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities, the convenience of the airport makes Northern Nevada the perfect place to live, work and play.
Instead of just being a connector airport, RNO has become the final destination. As of summer 2021, the airport is offering 25 nonstop destinations (its most ever). Some of the newer destinations include Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Charlotte, North Carolina and Austin, Texas — and new for December 2021, Palm Springs, California, is being added to the list.
“For a community of our size, I truly believe we have the best air service in America,” Kulpin says. “This kind of passenger traffic is not just something you see anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, hop-on jet company JSX operates in and out of Reno and is quickly adding destinations; in the spring of 2021, for example, service expanded with additional routes to Las Vegas and Oakland.
One of the allures of JSX for business professionals — aside from fairly inexpensive rates — is that since it offers service between private terminals in various cities, travelers can arrive 20 minutes before departure, in addition to not being charged to carry up to 3 bags.
“JSX is an interesting new product that started in the pandemic. They offer a smaller airport so that you don’t have to board at the terminal,” Kulpin notes. “You get on in a special office, are already prescreened with TSA, and take off and land in a similar-style office. It’s hassle free and a terrific option for people who want that level of service.”
Kulpin credits partners such as the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority and Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada for helping bring in business travelers, and Kulpin emphasizes RNO’s continuing commitment to providing the safest, cleanest airport possible.
“We were above average on airport cleanliness before, but now it’s even better,” Kulpin says, with the pandemic in mind. “We’re very proud of the beautiful airport we offer.”
Once here, there’s so much more to do
Sixty miles east of Reno on Highway 50, the City of Fallon is a thriving local-led community that’s experiencing more and more visitors in recent years who are coming for outdoor recreation, special events such as the Cantaloupe Festival, arts and culture experiences, and more.
“We have Sand Mountain Recreation Area, Grimes Point (Archaeological Area), the Oats Park Art Center … we’re a little gem on Highway 50 that people tend to come back to,” says City of Fallon Director of Tourism and Special Events Jane Moon.
Like Carson City, people escape to Fallon from nearby communities to get gas and supplies, while “making Fallon their home base for their outdoor adventures” along the way, Moon says.
“We’re 60 miles east of Reno, an hour drive from the airport; the same distance as North Lake Tahoe,” says Moon. “By car or RV is the best way to get here.”
While the City of Fallon doesn’t really keep track of visitor numbers, Moon does have data from the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge car counter. She notes that between 2020 and 2021, the number of cars going into the refuge — popular for birdwatching and photography — quadrupled in the time of COVID.
“All of our outdoor activities are getting more popular,” Moon says. “People want that space … I think we’ve all wanted it before, but now it’s more at the forefront because of social distancing caused by the pandemic. And Fallon’s still rural.”
Along with Fallon, Carson City is also an attractive gateway for tourism.
“In 2019, we had $206 million in visitor investment and $353 million in total economic impact,” says Visit Carson City Executive Director David Peterson. “This is from people choosing to spend their money in our community. They’re staying at hotels, eating at local restaurants, riding trains, visiting museums, going to casinos, shopping at retail stores, going on outdoor recreation trips (renting mountain bikes or e-bikes), visiting art galleries and more.”
Peterson enthusiastically describes the 48 stops on the Kit Carson Trail, and newly popular viewpoints from Prison Hill Recreation Area.
“Our parks and recreation team understands the needs of our locals and visitors — they’ve done an outstanding job of maintaining Carson City’s trails and open spaces,” Peterson says. “I’m very proud of them for that. People from Tahoe and Reno are even coming down to use our trails now.”
Along with its plethora of hiking and biking trails, Peterson believes Carson City’s proximity and ease of access to attractions is a focal point for tourism across Northern Nevada.
“It’s easy to do day trips to Reno, Fallon, Virginia City, Lake Tahoe; we’re looking at 20-25 minutes to get anywhere,” he says. “We’re sitting right in the middle of everything going on.”
Most people come from California by car, as far south as Los Angeles, or maybe they’re staying in Tahoe and coming to Carson City for the day.
What’s more, Peterson says people are constantly surprised at how close Carson City is — a half-hour drive — to Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
“And oh my God, it’s so simple coming in and out of that airport,” he says.
To back up Carson City’s newfound popularity, Peterson says the city had its single biggest month of tourism dollars coming in, when hotels, casinos and resorts generated $2.932 million in July 2021.
When asked what prompted the incredible amount, he replies, “I think it was from a combination of things … pent-up travel demand, people cutting loose after a year of quarantine. It’s just supply and demand. Properties are selling out even on weeknights.”
However, Peterson says he still considers Carson a rural destination, and currently people are paying higher amounts to be in rural places.
“We have to give credit to our residents; they’ve set a good example of good citizenship and have been integral in helping visitors understand the ever-changing rules with COVID and responsible travel. Visitors take their cues off how businesses and residents act, and the people here are great,” he notes. “When people think of Carson, they just think of the Capitol, and when they arrive, they’re blown away by all the things to do here like visiting the museums, breweries, restaurants or taking a railbike tour. We have a lot of history here and have that duality of paying homage to the past while moving forward.
“Quality of life is huge, but we want to get into the quality of a place and provide transformative experiences.”