With summer ending, I have been wondering just how big the tourist season has been on our Rock. Tourism pours the most money into the local economy, not counting the Navy payroll. We locals have certainly noticed the traffic, the crowds and the lack of parking everywhere. But in this data-driven world, how can the size actually be measured?
I consulted with Sherrye Wyatt, director of Whidbey Camano Tourism, and others to see what was available. What I discovered is that the data indicators are always “lagging.” That is, it takes months to compile the information on the two most obvious indicators: the lodging tax revenues and the sales tax revenues.
We won’t know sales tax information for months, but lodging tax revenues through July were a mixed bag and don’t include busy August and September. The total for the county for the first seven months 2023 was down 10.5%, but Oak Harbor was actually up 6.3% and Coupeville was up 9.3%. Unincorporated areas were down 13.5%. Hard to know what this may mean.
I also checked with Jason Armstrong, the director of Deception Pass State Park, the most visited state park in the country. He says he expects more than three million visitors to come through the park by year’s end, which may be down slightly from the pandemic years of 2020-21. Of course, that’s still an astonishing number and when you add the four million who visit the other six state parks on the Rock, you start to see why tourism “boom” is not an overstatement.
Armstrong said that during the pandemic it wasn’t unusual for there to be as many as eight people in a campsite as families doubled-up, but now it’s back to the pre-pandemic normal of three or four. But, of course, camp site reservations at Deception Pass and the other state parks are almost always full up to a year in advance.
So with lagging indicators and mixed bag early results, how should we judge the Rock’s tourist season, which has traditionally ended after Labor Day. But, actually, that tradition seems to have died years ago, judging by the crowds and big RVs we still see around here every day.
Oh well, with no solid data to study, we Rock dwellers must fall back on our most trusted method of finding out what’s going on: sharing our observations and anecdotes with each other. Herewith are a few of my own and those of a few friends:
—On a Tuesday evening a couple weeks after Labor Day, there was a 45-minute wait for a table at Front Grill in Coupeville, a 40-minute wait at Toby’s and a half-hour wait at Callen’s.
—Even with the new one-way direction and angled parking on Front Street, there was no parking available pretty much all day last week, and crowds of pedestrian tourists were wandering into the on-coming traffic, just as they always have.
—Pioneer Way can take 15 minutes to get from end to end, and gets even longer when somebody tries to back out of an angled parking space. And parking has become especially scarce near Whidbey Coffee.
—Southbound traffic backed up beyond Rosario Road to cross Deception Pass Bridge on a recent Monday as tourists searched, sometimes unsuccessfully, for a place to park and then stroll across that famous span to admire the view.
—Locals who take a walk down Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor, Front Street in Coupeville and First Street in Langley had more than the usual number of tourists asking about good places to eat and the location of public bathrooms.
—With ferry schedules disrupted by crew shortages and other problems, the wait to get onto our Rock from Mukilteo and Port Townsend has sometimes grown to several hours. Hard to know if more are coming or all of us are just waiting longer.
—Washington State Department of Transportation can’t tell us how much traffic has increased on our Scenic Isle Way, aka Highway 525/20. But the trip from Langley to Coupeville used to take 20 minutes and now it’s closer to half an hour.
So, given that trusted set of observations and anecdotes, I’d say our Rock’s tourist season was a big success. Who needs lagging indicators?
Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives on Central Whidbey.