Local tourism boom: Will it outlast the summer?

As the world opens up after 16 months of isolation, people around the country have cleaned off their dusty suitcases and eagerly left the homes they once were secluded in. But if trends continue, the tri-state area may be seeing more of an incoming crowd, than an outgoing.

| 26 Jul 2021 | 10:55

Summer travel prior to the pandemic was mostly made up of smaller groups visiting big cities, according to an Airbnb report released in May 2021.

But this summer, the most popular type of travel is families flocking to remote destinations from their big city homes.

States like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to name a few, have just started to experience crowds of tourists like never before inundating their small towns.

Bookings in rural destinations have doubled since 2019 and the number of travelers who’ve reserved Airbnb stays within 300 miles of their home is up 15 percent since January 2020.

To put it briefly, this summer may be full of new and unfamiliar faces at your local coffee shop, and more traffic at your favorite hiking trail.

But it begs the question: How long will this trend actually last?

Local businesses thrive

“These people are coming here with the purpose of spending money,” said Stacy Lawrence, owner of Greenwood Lake Garden Center.

Lawrence’s business sits on Route 17A, which she called “the gateway” to the town of Warwick, N.Y., a hugely popular tourist destination for its scenic views, breweries in bulk and picturesque hikes.

“The business community around Warwick has really evolved very quickly to accommodate what needs to happen with this influx of people.”

Pennings Farm Market in Warwick, N.Y is a great example of that business accommodation. Throughout the years, the farm market has become a huge tourist attraction around town, and made adjustments to match those crowds with expanded services which include a garden center, apple orchard, beer garden, and a cidery.

“It’s definitely a trend upwards,” said Tori Pennings Casimono, co-owner of Pennings Farm Market. “We’re getting a little bit busier each year, and it’s very exciting.”

“Go ten years back and it was just Pennings and a few other businesses, but now there’s a lot more for people to do. And we’re excited to see that growth of businesses, as it makes Warwick more of a destination.”

That growth has created a tourism market for other businesses and opportunities to thrive upon. Hannelore Chambers, President of Warwick Playground Dreams, saw that market and also noticed a small dilemma: How are visitors supposed to know what to visit and who to spend their money on?

Introducing, Hello Warwick Valley.

“Hello Warwick Valley is an initiative started during the hard lockdown during the COVID pandemic,” said Chambers. “We were looking at an existing dilemma, and trying to figure out creating a central place where everyone can go and experience the town of Warwick.”

So Chambers, and other local community leaders, took on the challenge and created a non-profit that aims to create a space where visitors and community members can look to for local events and activities.

“Not everyone is on the same social media platform, so it’s very hard to reach everyone that way. We wanted to create a central communication infrastructure, where you only need a computer to get onto.”

So far, they’ve garnered thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook and helped put many local activities, events, and businesses on the map.

Other events nearby, including the Rocks, Ribs & Ridges Festival in Augusta, N.J. have also seen huge numbers unlike ever before. Their 2021 festival held in June sold out in record timing, a feat never done before in its 11 years of operation.

The economic benefit

And after a year of closures and lack of hired help, an inundation of tourists is what many businesses that are still left standing are in desperate need of.

“The way we really have to view it is the economic benefit,” said Chris Barrett, owner and CEO of Pocono Mountains Visitor Bureau in Stroudsburg, Pa.

Pennsylvania is one of many states on the forefront for rural ventures from jittery urbanites.

“We have approximately 28 to 29 million people who visit (the Poconos) every year. 70-75% are out-of-staters,” Barrett explained. “They’re not recycled dollars, those are new dollars coming into our market from New York and New Jersey. That’s about $4.2 billion in economic benefit.”

Take a trip across the state of Pennsylvania, and you’ll see a similar situation in New Jersey’s largest fresh water lake, Lake Hopatcong.

“We’re definitely seeing that increase,” Caitlin Doran, Director of Development at the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, a nonprofit which focuses on fostering a safe and healthy environment in and around the lake.

“After the algae bloom setback in 2019, followed by a worldwide pandemic in 2020, we are definitely seeing a resurgence and rejuvenation of the lake,” said Doran.

“I think Covid helped many people rediscover local water sources nearby, so instead of making the drive to the Jersey Shore like in years past, they’re recognizing local lakes and making smaller trips instead.”

Doran said there’s an “unprecedented” amount of boat traffic on Lake Hopatcong this summer, a trend she says she sees continuing.

“It’s been great for local businesses after the year they’ve had,” said Doran.

Barrett, back in the Poconos, explained that he’s not only seeing growth in attractions or activities nearby, but in short term rentals.

“Not only are people utilizing short term rentals more than ever before, but people are also buying properties. It’s driving up real estate values pretty dramatically.”

Airbnb frenzy

“The traffic around us is probably around double or triple the number it was four or five years ago,” said Lawrence. “A lot more people discovered Warwick Valley when looking for safe outdoor spaces during the winter, and I think once that happened, people started coming in every other weekend.”

And they are seeing that trend continue into this summer all around the tri-state area. People from large cities want out of their apartments and into large rural areas with local attractions.

“Last winter, the Airbnb’s in town just exploded,” said Lawrence. “A lot of tourists are from New York City, but also New Jersey, places like Sussex and Bergen County have all come in, and I don’t see it declining any time soon.”

Michael Gelfand, president of the voting board at Highland Lakes Country Club, has also seen that interest within Sussex County recently.

“I think people are really trying to get back into nature, and going to state parks, lakes, agriculture, and Sussex County has a lot of that,” said Gelfand.

Gelfand said he is seeing more interest in Highland Lakes in general, even though it is a private lake community. “Last summer, people from nearby cities would try to access the lake, but it’s a process--you have to be a member or have a guest pass.”

“Our security is definitely having to turn more people away.”

‘We thought we were going to lose everything’

“We could never have predicted this,” said Maureen Mulcahy, innkeeper at Waterstone Inn in Greenwood Lake, N.Y.

Maureen Mulcahy knows all about the BnB biz: her family has owned the Waterstone Inn for 12 years. Her sister Lisa, manages a handful of Airbnb’s around Greenwood Lake, while Maureen manages the inn along with the help of her family.

“We really thought, in the beginning of the pandemic, that we were going to go bankrupt, I thought we were going to lose everything,” said Mulcahy. “And the opposite ended up happening.”

“A lot of people are saying that they saw something like this after 9/11, with people moving out of these big cities,” said Pocono Mountains Visitor Bureau owner Chris Barrett. “But I think the big difference today is that technology has allowed people to be able to live and work from wherever they want.”

Working remotely is a term that has spearheaded the Airbnb and rental business. Why work in a cramped apartment in a large city, when you can work with a beautiful view instead?

“We have friends living in beach communities and it’s crazy, people can’t get rentals, Airbnb’s, anything from Maine to South Carolina,” said Ron Boire, owner of the Stagecoach Inn. “So now, they’re coming here.”

Boire has seen a substantial increase of visitors this summer at his boutique hotel in Goshen, N.Y.

Goshen, a 20-minute drive away from Warwick, is another huge hotspot for local tourism, especially now with the $500 million Legoland theme park that opened down the road last month. The area around has grown so much so, TIME Magazine listed Hudson Valley, N.Y. as one of 2021’s greatest places to explore in the world.

“I do think that we only have so much space to give,” Lawrence, owner of Greenwood Lake Garden Center, “but I think the municipalities are being responsible in handling that.”

For example, the village of Greenwood Lake took over the Thomas Morahan Memorial Beach this June, originally owned by Warwick, and put a policy for residents of Warwick only.

“I think that appeases the locals, because, yes, there’s a lot more people renting kayaks and boats, but we still have our little gems just for us.”

Will it last?

So ... is this influx of travelers sustainable?

“No,” answered Boire of the Stage Coach Inn. “Once everyone feels really comfortable about traveling internationally again, I think it’s over.”

The world may be taking a collective breath at the moment, opting to stay close to home until the threat of the pandemic has lessened, or until restrictions are completely lifted. California has just reinstated their mask policy, and other countries are going back into lockdown because of the threat of Covid variants.

“Once people can really travel and fly, they’re going to go to islands, not here,” Boire said. “But for now, while Covid is still here for the most part, and California is going back to masks, people are taking these small trips because they haven’t for a year and a half.”

And while Boire believes that the local tourism boom is temporary, others around the area believe that it’s here to stay.

“It’s been consistent, and it’s been sustainable,” said Barrett. “(The Poconos) are a very strong four season destination, and I only see that continuing.”

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said he believed the pandemic had changed travel forever. He suggested these trends would continue long after the coronavirus ended: more travelers will look outside top destinations and consider smaller communities, and that they’ll be more interested in meaningful travel versus tourist spots.

For now, travelers are spending their time around smaller towns in the area hoping to escape to somewhere they feel safe, with activities abundant, and scenery unmatched. The tri-state area can’t help but check all of the boxes.

“Even if it comes out that this is just for the summertime, it still helps out these local businesses, who’ve been through so much the past year, to stay in business,” said Mulcahy. “And I think that’s always a good thing.”