Delaware tourism experts say the state was lucky to have been only grazed by Superstorm Sandy, and there might in fact be an upside to the storm.
Coastal towns in New Jersey and New York are struggling to get their beaches ready for the 2013 summer tourist season after Sandy caused massive damage to the area. A federal aid package of $51 billion was delayed for three months after the storm hit.
Heather Knowles, a realtor at Ocean Atlantic Sotheby’s in Lewes, said she has seen a noticeable increase in summer rentals. “We have an increase of 10 percent versus last year this time, and yes, they are people that usually rent at the Jersey Shore,” Knowles said.
Knowles also said it is more expensive to vacation in the Cape Region than the Jersey Shore, and many new customers are stunned at the price difference. “A lady rented a five-bedroom at Jersey Shore for $3,500, five blocks from beach,” Knowles said. “I have a five-bedroom ocean block home in Bethany Beach, and they want it for $4,500, but we rent it for $7,000.”
The Delaware beaches see more than 6 million visitors annually, said Carol Everhart, president of Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce; more than 50 percent of first-time visitors return. “If we can get them here once, we can get them back,” she said.
Everhart said it is still too early to predict if tourists who would normally visit beaches farther north will choose Delaware in 2013. But, she said, if the Cape Region gets a boost in first-time visitors, it could yield long-term benefits.
“We want those who typically go to those beaches to know they are welcomed here,” she said. “If they are looking for a beach, and theirs is not ready, we are here.”
Angela Yerton, rental agent for Prudential Gallo in Rehoboth Beach, said her branch has not yet surpasses 2012 bookings, but people are booking their vacation rentals sooner than usual. “Our rentals have increased over this time in 2012. We usually see most bookings take place closer to summer time, but this year people are booking early,” she said.
Yerton said she has also seen many new-to-Delaware visitors, who normally rent on the Jersey Shore. “In fact, one of my longtime customers is a contractor who does work in the Jersey Shore area, and he said that the structures are not the major concern – but the bacteria in the waters,” Yerton said. “Of course, this is only hearsay, but it was interesting to hear.”
In August, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection closed several beaches in Ocean County, N.J., citing water contaminated with high levels of a bacteria found in animal and human waste. All the beaches that tested high were reopened after about a week when bacteria levels returned to normal.
Joseph Cascio, manager of the rental division at Mann and Sons and Rehoboth Beach, said he anticipates an increase in rentals for summer 2013. “While we don't like to capitalize on the misgivings of others, we were very fortunate to have survived Superstorm Sandy relatively undamaged at Rehoboth and Dewey Beach,” Cascio said.
Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, also said the area is lucky Sandy did not hit full force. “It could be us right now,” he said.
Thomas said tourism bureaus from Atlantic City, N.J., to Virginia Beach, Va., are marketing to people whose vacation plans may have been thwarted by Sandy.
Southern Delaware Tourism has released the Try Your Shore Thing Here campaign in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where many residents would normally vacation at the Jersey Shore, he said. The campaign highlights Delaware’s five-star clean beaches, tax-free shopping and culinary prowess.
“This year probably has more of an opportunity to get first-time visitors,” he said. “Half the challenge sometimes is getting people here the first time. More times than less, they will return.”
Some local Realtors are less optimistic about what Sandy’s effects could mean for the Cape Region.
Jo-Ann Bacher, rental manager for Jack Lingo in Rehoboth Beach, said she has not seen an increase in reservations from people who were affected by Sandy. She also said some renters who normally visit Rehoboth Beach every summer are holding off on their deposits because they are still rebuilding from the storm.
“It is a Catch-22. The silver lining is we were all very fortunate we sustained very little damage,” Bacher said.
Sharon Palmer, vice president of rental operations at Coldwell Banker in Rehoboth Beach said it is too soon to tell how Sandy will affect renters in 2013. “Just like in New Orleans – the folks that love the Jersey Shore will want to do everything they can to help that area recover,” Palmer said. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”