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Pack your patience: Mass. summer tourism destinations face labor shortage

Tourists walk past Shop Therapy on Commercial Street in Provincetown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tourists walk past Shop Therapy on Commercial Street in Provincetown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

From Cape Cod to the Berkshires, tourism destinations in Massachusetts expect a busy summer season.

Bookings for short-term rentals and hotels are already high for the Cape's peak season — about 80% booked for the period from mid-July through mid-August — according to Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Niedziwecki. The rest of the summer is 40%-50% booked, but Niedzweck thinks the lower rate reflects an increase in short-term rentals available this season compared to past seasons.

"We are expecting another very strong summer," Niedziwecki said.

But, as in previous years, the region continues to struggle to find enough seasonal workers. Niedziwecki said visitors should "pack their patience" when they head to the Cape because these staffing challenges will impact service at many businesses.

"When people are down, they'll see potentially longer waits to get into restaurants, for example," Niedziwecki said. "Or restaurants that are no longer open seven days a week — they're open six or five days. Or restaurants that used to serve lunch and dinner that only serve dinner."

These are the sorts of changes businesses have adopted due to the worker shortage the region has experienced over the last two summers, according to Niedziwecki.

The Cape typically relies on foreign workers to help staff hotels, restaurants and other businesses during the busy tourist season, but the area hasn't seen a rebound to pre-pandemic numbers of some temporary visas. For example: Before the pandemic, the Cape had about 5,000 workers on J1 visas in the summer, according to Niedziwecki. But this summer, the region has less than half that.

The worker shortage on the Cape has been largely driven by a housing crisis — there isn't enough housing available, and the options that do exist aren't affordable — according to Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the region.

"What the pandemic did is it put that problem on steroids," Cyr said.

Much of the housing on the Cape is people's second and third homes, which became even more attractive for owners to occupy year-round during the pandemic. Additionally, a number of homes that, in the past, would have been rented out for seasonal workers have been converted to short-term rentals, according to Cyr.

"It's much more valuable to be rented by the night than it is by the month or by the season," Cyr said. "So working Cape Cod'ers and Islanders, especially people who are working in our hospitality and tourism sector, they just can't compete."

This is a significant problem for workers on visa programs, like the J1, which have housing requirements, as well as other workers in the region.

Other tourism destinations in the state are experiencing similar workforce struggles ahead of the summer travel season.

"More of our properties and businesses are in a slightly better spot staffing-wise than they maybe were in the summer of 2022," said Jonathan Butler, the CEO of 1Berkshire, an economic development agency and tourism council. "But I would say the majority, even maybe the strong majority, are still not at the capacity that they'd like to be. So staffing does remain a real challenge."

Like the Cape, Butler said the Berkshires region faces challenges with housing availability and affordability that have impacted its workforce and tourism economy. He also believes wages and people migrating to other industries — the so called "great resignation" — may be impacting staffing, particularly in service-oriented businesses.

The labor shortage looms as the region expects a robust summer season now that its many performing arts venues have full schedules without the pandemic restrictions of previous summers. Visitor spending in the Berkshires has bounced back over the last two years, according to Butler. And the pandemic helped bring a wider demographic to the region.

"We're not just seeing baby boomers and Gen X visitors," Butler said. "We're seeing millennials and we're seeing some younger Gen Z visitors that are coming here. And hopefully that's something that we can continue to sustain."

Officials and business leaders in the Berkshires and on the Cape hope to continue sustaining strong numbers of visitors, even as they figure out how to address some of the workforce and housing issues that impact how their tourism sector operates.

This article was originally published on May 26, 2023.


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



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