South County may see a strong rebound to its tourism season this summer after a pandemic padlock, say many bellwether organizations that have already seen a seasonal uptick in customers and cash pump into the local economy.
“I am completely booked up,” said Robin Leclerc, a Narragansett real estate agent and investor in several rental properties for year-round rentals. “All of June, July and August are taken, and I’m getting calls every day.”
At Brewer’s Yacht Sales in Wickford, David McKenney, boat sales broker, quipped, “All us brokers have more people wanting boats than boats to sell them.”
Local supervisors of town-run beaches also report that they are moving steadily ahead with reopening under at least the same conditions as last year. Some reported that by the traditional opening on Memorial Day, restrictions could be relaxed a bit more.
“We are approaching the 2021 beach and park season with optimism and caution, abiding by the latest Reopening RI and RI Department of Health Guidelines,” said Steve Wright, Narragansett Director of Parks and Recreation.
Opening the door wider for South County, the federal Centers for Disease Control advised late last week that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can travel “at low risk to themselves,” both within the United States and internationally.
The agency added that people must continue to take precautions like wearing a masks in public to avoid possibly spreading the virus to others.
It makes sense that South County business representatives are expressing optimism. In April, the first signs come from vacation rental bookings. These translate later into a much-needed infusion of tourist dollars to bolster drivers of the local economy, such as restaurants, stores and recreational activities.
CBNC recently reported that COVID vaccines, flexible cancellation policies and people yearning to break free from home are creating expectations for a booming summer travel season. Signs of the rebound are already appearing through reservations in the national travel industry.
A survey from research company Toluna indicates that Americans are gaining confidence to travel with each passing month, with 27% comfortable with traveling in April and 42% by July.
The sudden surge in bookings indicates a desire by many people to lock in reservations and rates before it’s too late.
At this point in the year, last-minute customers are booking the week-off-from-work rentals for a single, couple and, most often, families. Keen-eyed people already started the process at the end of last year or in January, after seeing forecasts of ramped-up vaccinations.
Leclerc reported last spring that the coronavirus caused a surge in cancellations, followed by re-bookings in the early summer. As outdoor activities were found to be safer, more people took a chance on leaving home, she said at the time.
By August she started to see a small uptick in cancellations again for remaining vacation bookings, due to various quarantine orders for people in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
She reported this past week that none of those concerns seemed to affect renters’ interests as economies open up. The new CDC guidance is likely to make her phone – and those of other rental agencies – start ringing off the hook.
“People are booking without any questions, like cancellation policies or fees. Last year they were iffy about booking. This year, not at all,” she said, noting that she even has people wanting to book properties now for an entire summer.
Full-summer rentals could tap a bank account for $20,000 to $30,000 from June through August at properties that average $2,500 per week.
“Some just want to get away. Most are from out-of-state and they just want the freedom that they were unable to have last year,” she said.
Her sentiments align with national findings by Phocuswright, a firm that studies trends in the travel industry.
Consumers, when asked in October whether they were more or less confident that travel would be safe in the next three months – compared to how they felt three months earlier – expressed confidence.
Nearly 50% of U.S. respondents said they felt more confident it would be safe to travel, the firm reported.
Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, reported that his members feel confident about a strong upcoming season. They are buoyed by the coronavirus vaccines that have helped to ease fears, he added.
“We already are seeing signs of life in businesses. There are more people in restaurants and some of the state’s restrictions have eased, and that is making for a better business climate,” he said this week.
Summer is a time when businesses, especially restaurants, need to earn the cash that will carry them through the doldrums of winter. Summer tourists and day-trippers pump these businesses with high volumes of revenue unseen during the late fall and winter months.
Without that strong spending, as had happened last year, businesses in the fall needed some extra help from the state. Lower-than-expected summer revenues hit them hard, even with summer tourists braving travel to South County.
Businesses in the local area started to follow the state’s “Take It Outside” campaign – and were beneficiaries of associated state funding – for fall outdoor dining and entertainment operations.
Business and government leaders in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown all reported applying, and some are already getting grants through the program.
Viele said this week that even with that push, “businesses still have a lot of making up to do in terms of revenue lost from last year.”
One hit happening right now, that will hurt even more when summer customer demands increase, is a shortage of help, he said.
Many restaurant owners, including Kevin Durfee, owner of George’s in Galilee, have complained that added unemployment benefits are hurting them. He and Viele said that someone can often make more staying at home rather than working.
“I know owners who are in the kitchen one day a week, not only cooking, but doing dishes, too,” said Viele, who also said that the issue is affecting local hotel owners and operators.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan passed on March 11 included another round of stimulus checks, more money for the child tax credit and more weeks of $300 unemployment checks added to the amount already being received by those out of work.
Beaches and Ferries
Last summer was about limiting crowds and taking precautions at area beaches. It was also about finding a balance that allowed visitors to enjoy the beach sunshine without getting too close to others.
Caution and precaution were words that kept coming up. That is similar again this year.
Town beach administrators said last week that the same rules would apply this year until the state gives further notice. Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown each had their own approaches – with some having restrictions on season passes – to managing beach-going in the COVID-19 era.
“We expect that on many days there may be times that social distancing requirements will force us to limit access to our lots or admission sites,” said Parks and Recreation Director Wright. “If and when social distancing restrictions ease as the summer progresses, we will increase our attendance numbers.”
In North Kingstown, Chelsey Dumas-Gibbs, recreation director, said her beach operated without restrictions.
“Last year there were no restrictions at our town beach, so we are anticipating the same for this year,” she said. “We ask that everyone remain safe, in common areas wear masks, and be aware of space between families.”
In South Kingstown there were limits on the number of seasonal passes sold, and by the end of the summer a waiting list of 300 still remained, said Recreation Director Terry Murphy. Even with restrictions, operations went smoothly, she said.
“Actually, it all worked out very well. We spent an immense amount of time to make sure we follow all the local and state regulations,” Murphy added.
Hopping on the Point Judith ferry to Block Island is also a summer activity that draws locals and tourists alike. The ferry runs from the Port of Galilee to the small island just off the Rhode Island coast.
“I expect it will be a great season, especially on the hot summer days when people want to go to the island,” said Chris Myers, operations manager for Interstate Navigation’s Block Island Ferry.
He said the boat is still only handling 50% capacity as required by state law. This year, all passengers and crew will be required by federal regulations to wear a mask while on the boat.
Some people last year removed them while underway, but that will not be allowed this year, Myers said.
In North Kingstown, at the Rhode Island Fast Ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, the boat will transport passengers on Memorial Day weekend and then halt service until mid-June, when full service will begin, said owner Charlie Donadio.
His operations, too, will be governed by the same federal mask-wearing regulations issued by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The pandemic killed the entire 2020 season for the Rhode Island Fast Ferry and its various sightseeing tours, which has been a staple in Rhode Island tourism. It was the first time in its 17-year history that the ferry service had to cancel an entire season.
Private Boat Sales Surging
If there’s enough money in the bank account, people don’t need the fast ferry – they can try to buy their own boat.
But good luck with that effort, warned David McKenney, boat broker at Wickford’s Brewer’s Yacht Sales.
Boat sales skyrocketed last year during the coronavirus pandemic, as more Americans sought an on-the-water lifestyle.
Sales of boats, marine products and services across the country leaped to a 13-year high in 2020 to $47 billion – a 9% increase from the prior year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The trend, which shows few signs of letting up in 2021, shocked industry players.
They said they were certain that rough times would come as the pandemic shut down the economy. Now, boat dealerships are struggling to maintain inventory and manufacturers are expanding production capacity to meet demand, according to the report.
McKenny agreed, saying last year he had record sales. He sees the same forecast for this year.
Boats at his North Kingstown business are in demand, he said. Whether sail or motor, these 30-foot long (and larger) vessels are about 20 years old on average and sell for about $30,000. Newer and larger ones can go for $175,000 or more, he said.
“As soon as we get one on the market, I get lots of calls,” he said. “It goes very quickly.”
Boats are known less for their appreciation in value then for the expense of keeping them running. He offered an observation about those costs in a year marked by job losses, food shortages in families, bare-bones budgets and sapped finances.
“There are a lot of people doing well during a pandemic,” he said.