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Summer Tourism 'Not As Catastrophic' As Expected On Cape Cod

Tourists walk along Commercial Street in Provincetown, an area where local officials ordered it mandatory to wear a mask in the business district due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tourists walk along Commercial Street in Provincetown, an area where local officials ordered it mandatory to wear a mask in the business district due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders on Cape Cod say the summer travel season was busier than expected.

Visitors booked much longer stays than usual, and vehicle traffic to the region increased as the summer progressed, according to the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force.

"I think it was certainly a slower and harder season than we've had in quite some time, but not as catastrophic as I think we had predicted at the outset of the season," Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents most of the Cape, the Vineyard and Nantucket, said on a call Thursday with other task force members.

Traffic over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, which take people to the Cape, dropped by a quarter over Memorial Day weekend compared to the same time last year, according to Cyr. Bridge traffic continued to increase in July and August and by the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, traffic was 2% higher than it was last year.

And once people got to the Cape, they stayed for longer than usual.

"This season we saw people renting for much longer stays, at least a week," said Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross. "But more predominantly, we were seeing 30-day, 60-day, 90-day rentals."

There were, however, fewer short-term rentals available this summer and fewer bookings overall, according to Northcross. Through July, there were roughly 244,000 fewer room nights available via short-term rentals and bookings were down by about 4%, Northcross said, referencing the latest Airbnb data obtained through the state. Many people took their short-term rental listings off the market for their own personal use or because they didn't want to take on any liability if someone got sick, Northcross added.

Despite the declines, the average daily rate for short-term rentals was 5% higher this year, which was "good for our economy," Northcross said.

It's worth noting, hotel occupancy rates were down by about 12% the last month of summer, compared to the same time last year.

The longer visitor stays also meant more revenue for owners, according to Ryan Castle of the Cape & Islands Association of Realtors.

"There were less bookings, but more revenue because instead of staying for a week, they stayed for two," Castle said. "We're still seeing that into the fall, of people taking a month here or something like that."

Castle said some longer-term visitors have converted into buyers, adding to the Cape's booming real estate market, which is seeing record median sales prices. At the same time, there are concerns about housing affordability on the Cape.

While summer on the Cape was "better than expected" in terms of tourism and managing the coronavirus outbreak, Cyr said there has been real hardship as well.

Nearly 90% of businesses said their revenue from the first two quarters of the year was down compared to the same time last year, and over 50% said it had decreased more than 50%, according to a survey by the Cape Cod Commission.

Earlier in the summer, unemployment was at or above 20% for many towns in Barnstable county, Cyr said. As of September 5 unemployment on Cape Cod was in line with the rest of the state, with most towns in the high single digits. Still, due to the seasonal nature of employment on the Cape, Cyr said he expects unemployment numbers to change again.

"Communities on Cape Cod, also Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, traditionally have the highest unemployment in the Commonwealth, particularly in the off-season, and I expect we'll see that again," he said.

Leaders on the Cape have rolled out a "second summer" campaign in the hopes of bringing in more tourism in the region through the fall season.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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