[caption id="attachment_231953" align="alignnone" width="1024"] The summer of 2023 saw hotel occupancy down to pre-pandemic levels, possibly brought down by hot temperatures and more travel destinations available. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR'S OFFICE[/caption]
After back-to-back record-breaking summers for visitation at the Delaware beaches, it seems that seasonal tourism is simmering back down to normal.
According to hotel occupancy data collected by the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, both midweek and weekend stays were slightly down this summer compared to recent years.
An estimated 107,385 hotel rooms were filled in the region from January through the first weekend in October, compared to 118,492 during the same time period in 2022 and 110,994 in 2021. Mid-week data, collected on Wednesdays, from that same time period showed a similar trend, with 84,300 booked rooms in 2023 compared to 91,110 in 2022 and 89,474 in 2021.
Local tourism officials suspect there are a few reasons why visitation seemed to level off this year, namely people’s ability to finally travel farther or overseas unlike during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beach travel is also highly weather-dependent, so the bad weather days caused by the smoke wafting down from climate change-fueled forest fires far to the north and above-average sweltering heat also played a role.
Carol Everhart, the Rehoboth-Dewey chamber’s president and CEO, said short-term rentals were also slightly down this summer season, also offering an indication of the economy playing a role too.
“When I talked to my counterparts in other states, they were seeing the same thing,” Everhart said. “That really points me toward the economy having some kind of impact …With all the things that impacted visitation in a very usual way, we’re OK.”
Southern Delaware Tourism Executive Director Scott Thomas agreed that the data shows a small dip this year, in part a “cooling here in Sussex County from that post-pandemic rush,” international travel and the weather.
“Maybe some travelers that were coming here are opting to go a little farther away,” he said. “I think it’s a factor. How large, I’m not sure. And certainly, our local proximity to all the large populations, that always helps us regardless.”
Hotel occupancy numbers from January through early October were about on par with, and in one sense even surpassed, pre-pandemic visitation seen in 2019. The chamber’s 2023 weekend hotel bookings saw about 500 fewer rooms booked compared to 2019, but just over 12,000 more rooms were booked mid-week in 2023 compared to 2019.
It’s not a perfect science, Everhart said, but her best guess as to why that midweek increase was seen in 2023 is also economically based. Typically rates during the week are much lower than the weekend, so people may have been opting to visit during the week instead of on busy weekends.
Everhart said that if numbers are on par with what was seen in 2019, then things are relatively back to normal. While 2021 and 2022 were “over the top,” she said – noting that the antsy feeling that had people fleeing to the beaches for a brief respite or a longer stint for those able to work from the seaside — that has now all but settled.
“We also didn’t have quite the economic concerns we’ve had this year,” she said.
As for the beach businesses, an ongoing issue with staffing linked to a lack of affordable housing for employees in the area continues, Everhart said. As fall gets underway, she reiterated that there’s really no longer a formal offseason at the Delaware beaches like there was decades ago.
Thomas said that, looking forward, it will be interesting to see how hotel occupancy rates shift as more rooms come online with new projects in the pipeline.
“I think that we certainly need to keep our foot on the gas as far as destination marketing year-round … to keep occupancy levels at a certain point,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities.”
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