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Md., Delaware coastal resorts ride wave of tourism success

Ocean City

A sign welcomes visitors to Ocean City Maryland. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

With another summer on the books for the Eastern Shore, the rising interest in the area’s coastal towns shows no signs of slowing.

For 2015, numbers measuring tourism are still trending up in Ocean City and along the coast of Sussex County, Delaware.

Whether it’s gas prices continuing to decline or a stretch in July and August with nothing but sunny skies, experts studying the industry in both areas saw increases in tourism from May through Labor Day Weekend.

Ocean City Communications Manager Jessica Waters pointed to favorable weather during the summer, especially on the weekends.

“We had a wonderful summer season,” Waters said. “We couldn’t have had a better season overall.”

Susan Jones, executive director at Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, also said via email the resort saw more weekend visitors.

“Weekends were the busiest, which is a trend we’ve seen for a few years now,” Jones said. “In fact, we’ve been doing a lot of mid-week deals to encourage travel Sunday through Thursday.”

When it comes to Sussex County, season-end numbers from Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce also reflect increasing interest in weekend stays.

While the mid-season numbers projected an upward trend back in July, the number of people inside Rehoboth’s and Dewey’s weekend retreats only continued to rise during the summer’s busiest months.

Overall, weekend occupancy in the area was up by nearly 3,000 visitors from January to Aug. 24 this year compared to the same period in 2014, according to the chamber. In addition, summer occupancy rates during the weekends also rose compared to 2014. According to the report, June to August saw an increase of nearly 1,300 in occupancy compared to the same period in 2014.

Linda Parkowski, executive director of Delaware’s Department of Tourism, said she expects upward trends outlined in the department’s 2013 study of tourism in the state to continue, with Sussex County’s coast being a driving factor.

“We certainly know that there’s an intent to travel and that there’s interest in Delaware,” Parkowski said.

She said ever since the state launched a comprehensive ad campaign to highlight its tourist attractions in January, the department’s website traffic has “seen a 100-percent increase” every month since.

Internally, she said the department is noticing more interest from New York and New Jersey residents, something posited by other officials as being driven by Superstorm Sandy’s effects on the states’ highly trafficked coasts.

“The 2013 numbers certainly speak to that, and the beginning of 2012’s (numbers) speak to that,” Parkowski said. “I do believe we’re going to see that through 2014 and 2015. You do see a lot of New York and New Jersey license plates.”

For Ocean City, both Waters and Jones said the season lived up to expectations, and most seemed happy with the amount of tourism. Preliminary numbers for the beginning of the season showed the positive trend likely to continue through the rest of the summer months.

The solid waste collection, in tons, went from 4,206.02 to 4,228.81 in June, an increase of 0.5 percent, according to the Ocean City Tourism Metrics Report. It went from 5,669.18 to 6,071.15 in July, an increase of 7 percent.

Room, food and admission and amusement tax numbers also increased in both June and July compared to last year, according to the report.

But it seems the number of events also really helped continue to draw people in.

There were quite a few special events that “really raised the bar,” Waters said. The Fourth of July was one of the largest in history, she said. The holiday fell on a weekend this year, she said, something that always makes a difference. The OC Air Show was also the best Waters said she could remember, and the White Marlin Open was another “successful event.”

In addition to the big-name events, Waters said smaller events like Sundaes in the Park were very popular. It’s “amazing” the effort that has been put into these, she said.

“There was an estimated 5,000 people at some of those events,” she added.

Sussex’s coast is still heavily weighted on the strength of its restaurant and shopping attractions. Parkowski said “eating and shopping” are the two biggest things that drive Delaware’s tourism economy, and Sussex County is no stranger to either.

“Our coastal towns are being known as the ‘culinary coast,’ ” Parkowski said, adding areas like Rehoboth, Bethany and Dewey are attracting chefs and owners to open “what you would see in larger cities at affordable prices.”

Add in tax-free shopping and low gas prices, and Parkowski said the local economies were able to thrive on the basis that Delaware is a predominantly “drive-to state.”

But the events don’t stop after Labor Day, and Ocean City is hoping the fall and winter schedules keep the tourists coming back for more.

Jones said she’s hearing September has been strong so far. With the many special events planned during the offseason, “practically an event on every weekend,” she said, businesses should continue to do well.

September is typically just as busy as June, if not more, Waters said. And those who come back through the fall can look forward to OCtoberfest, Restaurant Week and Winterfest as they head into November. This leads into the holiday season, which Waters said also continues to grow in the resort.

“People enjoyed every bit of the summer season that they could in OC,” Waters said. “The summer will be ending but the fun will continue in Ocean City.”