Five-hour lines at a Myrtle Beach golf arcade. Restaurants temporarily closing to give overwhelmed workers a breather. And usually desolate roads now clogged with traffic. After a dark year with many following “stay home” guidance, the vaccinated travel boom is here.
“People tell me this is their first time leaving the house in a year,” says Anthony Rovente, who runs the ten-room Edenwild Inn with his wife, Crystal, on Lopez Island, about three hours from Seattle in Washington. They bought the inn six years ago, and the seasonal flow of visitors has always been pretty predictable—until this year.
“We are seeing visitors at rates that are like the beginning of June in March and April,” says Rovente. When a surprise crush of spring travelers swarmed the 30-square-mile island with a population of 2,000, only one restaurant was open daily for sit-down dining, Rovente says (on a summer weekend, about 15 restaurants open to meet the high-season surge). “That’s a challenge when I’m in the business of making sure people have a meal.”
Newly-vaccinated Americans are ready—desperate even—to travel, and escape a long year suffocatingly confined to their own homes. In 2020, the hotel industry hit an all-time low with a 44 percent occupancy rate, global air traffic plummeted by 65.9 percent from the previous year, and Airbnb laid off 25 percent of its staff after bookings collapsed.
Now, as the U.S. powers ahead on vaccinations—ranking in the top ten internationally as 49 percent of the population has gotten at least one shot—former stay-homers are ready to hit beaches, camping grounds, hotels, and restaurants. In a January Tripadvisor survey, 80 percent of American respondents said they would be more likely to travel domestically once they received a coronavirus vaccine, and half of respondents were planning a trip for this spring, with most looking for smaller, outdoorsy spots. This new wave of travelers, brimming with pent-up wanderlust and confidence in their newly vaccinated immunity, is disrupting the off-season.
Last year, ferries to the San Juan Islands, including Lopez, ran on winter schedules through the summer as many Americans stayed home and island residents sacrificed the tourist season for their safety. This year’s early spring crowds caught the Roventes by surprise, as antsy-but-anxious folks snatched up reservations to the normally quiet island in a blink of an eye. Painting and plumbing projects that the Roventes usually squeeze into the low season were pushed off as the couple struggled to keep up with a flood of eager guests. Camping across all of Washington’s State Parks in the San Juan Islands also increased sharply this year, bringing with it both much-needed income, as well as other problems. “We have seen more trash, resource damage, infrastructure vandalism, theft, residents' complaints,” says Elexis J. Fredy, the superintendent of San Juan Island National Historical Park.
In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Sadek Darwiche, owner of the luxury Hotel Jackson, has seen a similar rush. Bookings this April were more than double those of the same month in 2019 (they were closed in April 2020). “Guests [say] they are traveling because they are vaccinated,” he notes of the uptick.
Jackson normally has a double-season in the summer and the winter. “It used to be ‘make money in summer,” says Darwiche. “Then hold on like hell.’” But now business owners are seeing the long-time dream of a year-round tourist economy in Jackson come to fruition—and the challenges it brings. “I think there’s a bittersweet feeling,” says Darwiche. “We’re thankful for the business, but it’s different.”
Tourists crowded restaurants, snapped up the COVID-limited numbers of seats on socially-distanced ski lifts, and left local service workers without a release. “People move here to work hard for a season so they can have a month off,” says Hannah Trask, who has worked in Jackon’s restaurant industry for six years. But as the snow melted, the traffic never died down. By spring, local workers—who moved to Jackson, largely to opt out of the daily grind—were tired. “The people who live here value their free time,” says Trask. Suddenly, they had much less of it.
Customers took out their frustrations with pandemic restrictions and limited supply on overworked service staffers. Trask, a bartender until April, faced customers who harangued her about her mandatory mask, asking “Why are you wearing that stupid thing?” and “Don't you hate it?” The town’s limited restaurant capacities meant without a reservation, it was hard to get a seat anywhere. When she told people the restaurant was full, they saw the empty space around the bar—closed for social distancing restrictions—and demanded to know why they couldn't sit, “since there's plenty of room.”
Halfway across the country, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, crowds fill Ocean Boulevard and line up outside Señor Frog’s. Despite the loss of many of the usual winter regulars—Canadian snowbirds, sports tournaments, and conventions—Myrtle Beach stayed packed even before the spring crowds arrived.
“If I take a wrong turn going to the library on a Saturday morning,” says D.R.E. James, a local dining writer, “I’m stuck in traffic.” As he set out to meet his sister at Topgolf for her birthday recently, she texted him not to bother coming by, because the line was five-hours long. Unlike neighboring cities such as Charleston and Wilmington, Myrtle Beach doesn’t have a port, factories, or other economic engine: it depends on restaurants and hotels for jobs and income. Luckily, it hit the sweet spot for pandemic travelers: plenty of outdoor space for distancing, and a drivable distance from major cities like Atlanta, Georgia and Washington D.C. Hotel bookings and prices were up at least 16 percent for May and June over 2019, according to Karen Riordan, the president and CEO of Visit Myrtle Beach.
“Every restaurant here is suffering and those of us who are working are doing overtime and are overworked from back of house to front of house.”
As hospitality businesses everywhere scramble to staff up, some are doing the unthinkable to keep their workers from burning out: closing down. In Jackson Hole, restaurants Local, Trio, and Snake River Grill, shut their doors for a few weeks to give service staff some much-needed rest. On Lopez Island, restaurant operators couldn't even consider expanding hours until the seasonal workforce of students returned for summer break, and the restaurants that were open quoted three-hour waits for pick-up orders. Damon’s Oceanfront Grill, a 27-year-old restaurant in Myrtle Beach, announced in April it would close on Mondays to “give our dedicated staff some much needed time off.”
James says his stepdad works at a local hotel, and feels the crunch of the tourist waves as they scramble to deal with the hordes checking in, checking out, wanting late check outs and early check ins. “It’s hectic—people are exhausted,” says James. “If people don’t get fully staffed by Memorial Day Weekend, it’s gonna be a shit show.”
It already might be. “PSA to everyone coming to Myrtle Beach,” server Darby Jones wrote on a Facebook post that went viral at the end of March. “Every. Single. Restaurant. Is. Understaffed. Please don’t whine about the wait time or food taking a long time, every restaurant here is suffering and those of us who are working are doing overtime and are overworked from back of house to front of house.”
As tourism ramps up after a year of relative quiet and low employment, some hospitality workers are leaving the industry altogether. Fed up with customers treating her like “a servant,” Trask left her bartending job to try to make it as a freelance web developer, a story she says is common among people there. “John sitting at table 12 just told me I’m an idiot because I brought them the wrong mustard,” she describes a friend telling her about why he was quitting. “I don’t need to deal with this, so I'm not going to.”
The struggle of staffing in the hospitality industry right now isn’t unique to vacation towns, but it is magnified by the double whammy of a tourism spike and housing shortages. Remote workers escaping cities skyrocketed rents and home prices for local staff in destinations all over the country. In Jackson, that rush took up workforce housing, pushing out renters at an accelerated rate, explains Darwiche. “They buy a home, and that home housed five roommates,” and suddenly those five employees don’t have a place to live, so they leave. The median home price in Jackson last year hit $2.5 million, rents in the county went up almost 10 percent year over year, and the average two-bedroom apartment now runs around $2,500 a month.
“Resort towns don’t have access to employees,” explains Darwiche. Jackson Hole, he says, relied heavily on a workforce that wasn’t available in the pandemic season: H2B and J1 visa holders coming from overseas. Then-President Donald Trump suspended the visa program, which many tourist-facing industries depend on, for more than a year. In 2019, Wyoming had about 2,400 seasonal J1 visa workers (of about 300,000 nationwide), and was already fighting for increases to the national 66,000 person cap on H2B visas—another complication now with slow international vaccination rates. Meanwhile, Tripadvisor's January analysis showed Jackson Hole ranking 10th on their trending destinations (meaning the biggest increase in traffic from the previous year), and Myrtle Beach ranked third on the list of most popular destinations people searched.
But too much business after a period of depressed income is a sign for optimism after a slog with precious little of it. Though the massive surge in off-season visitors caught smaller operators off-guard, the influx of travelers brings hope too.
“People who usually went to Europe are coming here,” Darwiche says. Road trippers to Wyoming once mostly came from Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver, Colorado but now folks from New York, California, and Washington were driving in. “The future is bright,” he says. “But we’re going to go through some growing pains in the community.”
Rovente figures they can rest in February when (hopefully) things slow down. The former farmer recalls the saying “you make hay when the sun shines,” and plans to push himself to get through the summer however he can, expressing gratitude for “the opportunity to be exhausted.” After all, that rubber band might snap back in the other direction, with travelers abandoning quick weekend trips in favor of international ones once it’s safer to go abroad.
But there may be other changes too as vaccination rates increase. Rovente pauses to consider another possibility for newly liberated remote workers. “Maybe little inns can be the new office space?”
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