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Delaware tourism depends on new variant in new year

Katie Tabeling
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The Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber reports that hotel bookings were up 30% over last year, setting a record year, but officials are anxiously waiting to see how the pandemic progresses before next summer. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

REHOBOTH BEACH — At the end of 2020, Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carol Everhart predicted that when the vaccine arrived, the demand to return to the beach would bring southern Delaware tourism roaring back.

She was right. By hotel and rental bookings, Delaware’s beaches closed out a record year, surpassing even the summer after 9/11. But looking ahead to the new year, she’s hopeful for another financially successful season but with the omicron variant, the future is a little uncertain.

“We’ll know more in the next 12 to 16 weeks whether we can continue this strong growth,” Everhart said. “No one knows what lies ahead, with restrictions on travel and the workforce shortages, but we do know this: we are a strong destination to come to.”

By December, hotel bookings for weekends in 2021 were at 133,208, a 30% bump from 2020, according to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. Weekday visitation was up 39%, and surprisingly the winter months also saw more visits. 

It’s a similar story with rentals: Jack Lingo Rentals for Rehoboth and Dewey Beach had 5,800 rentals and in 2022, another 2,220 rentals are booked as of Dec. 20.

“It was quite the paradox, coming off the worst year and having the best year,” EOS Delaware properties general manager Ben Gray said. “I do think 2022 will be a stable year, but not a record-setter. But think of the marketing when we have the president’s summer home two blocks down.”

It was a different story for northern Delaware. At the Courtyard by Marriott in Newark, rooms were getting booked at a slower pace on weekends but the biggest struggle may have been the customary weekday business travel.

“Sussex County had a great year, Kent had an average year and New Castle County was dragging because business travel was so low,” said hotel manager Bill Sullivan, who sits on the board of the Delaware Hotel & Lodging Association. “We got some of the sports tourism and weddings, but every time there was an issue with return-to-office, we were hit. And we need the business.”

Conventions and conferences may be another complicating matter, as Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jennifer Boes reports that rebookings have come back, although nowhere to the level they were at before the pandemic.

However, she pointed out the best gauge for tourism was the accommodation tax receipts, as her office’s budget is 95% funded from that tax revenue. 

“We are heavily dependent on COVID, but I do think we are set up for success because we have so many things to promote this year, whether it’s our various sports venues, Wilma’s opening, and the Delaware Natural History Museum reopening,” Boes said. “We already have 1,500 rooms blocked for the A-10 conference tournament. It’s going to be a long road ahead, but we are set up for success.”

Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly states that the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau met its projected budget by 95% in 2021. The GWCVB is funded 95% by accommodation tax. We regret the error.

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