Tourists are coming back to South County, say many local business owners and tourism officials, in ways unexpected just a few months ago.
Tracking data for various accommodations in South County shows that brand name hotels as well as vacation cottage rentals are seeing more reservations following the easing of restrictions and the start of the summer vacation season, local officials say.
“It’s the sentiment of feeling trapped. They just want to get out and they know this area is safe,” said Louise Bishop, president of the South County Tourism Council based in Charlestown.
Like Cape Cod is experiencing, Rhode Island’s South County is getting the same unexpected influx of people — after massive cancellations of accommodations bookings in March and early April.
Vacationers just want to spend time here, perhaps a short drive from their homes elsewhere, and enjoy a traditional summer vacation, she said with some caution.
“It is still a mixed bag of issues,” Bishop added and others interviewed agreed.
For instance, that boon doesn’t extend to restaurants and other food service establishments. Many report still lagging behind in revenues this year compared to those last year, tourism and government officials said.
Beaches have been limited in numbers of people who can walk the sands by the rippling salt water. Restaurants must follow social distancing guidelines that limit tables and people who can sit at them.
Retail, for its share of the economic pie, needs more than year-round residents. It depends not only on hotel guests, but also on the ripple of day trippers for beaches and eateries.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, fearing increases in coronavirus among the general population, has asked out-of-state people to keep away from the Ocean State’s chief tourist attraction — its beaches.
Local government leaders, meanwhile, are bracing for significant decreases in needed tax revenue from meals, beverages and lodging – money used to help sustain local budgets.
On one hand, business wants to thrive or at least keep alive, while on the other people are fearful of crowds and government officials want to manage — if not prevent — further outbreaks of the virus.
“It’s going to take a while to assess the overall impact,” said Bishop and others watching the fate of the 2020 local tourism industry.
The Picture Today
For now, though, brand hotels – down 38 percent in June for occupancy – are now 80 to 85 percent occupancy with people staying longer than just a weekend because they can work remotely, Bishop said.
Cottages — single home rentals through agencies and online booking sites AirBnB and Vrbo — are seeing 90 percent occupancy, she said.
While the state lodging occupancy overall is down about 50 percent, according to an industry analysis by STR, a subsidiary of Smith Travel Research, South County and the Newport areas are exceptions, Bishop and other local officials said.
But that silver lining has a tenuous future if state and local analysis of losses of expected tax revenue — often a large portion from those visiting the South County area — is any indication.
When looking at tourism, one reliable gauge is the revenue to towns from meal, beverage and lodging taxes.
For instance, numbers estimated by the state project a total loss of $1.6 million combined for the towns of Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown.
This covers a two-year period, including recently closed-out budget years. However, local officials, using different projections, see reduced numbers – but large losses nonetheless.
And a recent crackdown on out-of-state beach-goers by Raimondo didn’t help to make those numbers any better.
To prevent large crowds at two of the state’s major beaches – Scarborough in Narragansett and Misquamicut in Westerly – she significantly reduced parking capacity.
This comes on top of many area towns restricting beach parking to only residents, in effect to limit capacity on their beaches.
The DEM is asking out-of-state residents to avoid traveling to Rhode Island beaches in an effort to keep the crowds down.
In addition, there have been hundreds of canceled events, such as the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Galilee, The Charlestown Seafood Festival and the September Calamari Cook Off and Summer›s End Festival in Narragansett.
Sponsoring organizations, which often have charitable missions, have lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. Exact total for South County hasn’t been determined yet, said Bishop.
Culprits of COVID
Crowds are the culprits of COVID-19 and remain the chief reason behind the cancellations, organizers have said.
In addition, other crowded places – restaurants and food enterprises – are struggling, despite the soaring numbers in lodging for the area.
“There’s no doubt that our restaurants have been the hardest hit with fewer people coming into them,” said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager.
With various restrictions related to how a business can operate, some businesses have chosen to either close or not open until the pandemic-related problems ease.
Oatley’s Family Restaurant, 1717 Ten Rod Road, North Kingstown, and operated for more than four decades by the same family, shut its doors permanently as its owner grappled with declining revenues.
As state revenue projections have warned, Vaughn Oatley is concerned his own profit margin will be diced up by people’s fears of the virus coupled with restrictions that combined hurt business.
Staff worries about getting sick – even though they are collecting enhanced unemployment benefits – and are reluctant to work with the public.
Oatley also wanted to expand during the last decade, but met neighborhood opposition and delayed that plan. Along with continuing virus concerns, both gave him reason to close the business, he said.
Many restaurants, such as George’s of Galilee in Narragansett, the Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown and Mews Tavern in Wakefield, have supplemented the losses inside with an accompanying outside table service and take-out food.
These often cater to the tourists coming to area hotels and motels by meeting needs for safe social distancing, avoiding indoor settings and still enjoying local fare, owners said.
Not all hotels, though, are seeing — or wanting this year — the boon brand names have seen.
For instance, personal concerns, along coping with much more strict sanitizing requirements for hotel, motel and inn operators, led Levon Kasparian to keep his inn shut this season.
Owner of the Admiral Dewey Inn on Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown, he said he decided to use this season to do maintenance, get a hip replacement and avoid the hassles with operating under COVID-cleaning conditions lodging owners and operators face.
There is a balance that everyone is waiting to see which way it eventually tips, said Bishop of the South County Tourism Council.
“The positive,” she said, “is that people have come back to South County. Our message was as the fog lifted from COVID, find your way back. And they have.”
“They definitely have been showing up in large numbers,” said Bishop, keenly aware that state government officials are also looking at this evolving situation because of their interests in state business development, yet also preventing a public health crisis.
“The challenge for South County and its businesses is the restaurants and the limited number of seating and the new look to their venues because of social distancing,” she said.
“My fear is that we will lose some of the business by fall and they won’t be back next year,” she said, when government and local officials hope a very different tourist season greets visitors to South County.