Dollar down, Euro up, tourists arrive
Cars slowed to parking space hunting speed on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. The Five Corners intersection in Vineyard Haven backed up to horn honking stage. A short burst of warm weather spurred the appearance of sandals and shorts in Edgartown.
Despite all appearances, there was no time warp on the Vineyard this past weekend. It was indeed April, not July.
Local business owners credit an unusually busy weekend to an influx of foreign visitors, eager to spend more valuable pounds, euros, and Canadian dollars.
In February, the latest month for available statistics, international travel into Logan Airport in Boston increased 6.8 percent, compared with February of last year. "Apparently it's going to be the big thing this summer," said Susan Gibbs of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
Adding to the early-season rush were school vacationers from other parts of New England who were reluctant to travel abroad, or buy increasingly expensive tickets on fuel-guzzling aircraft.
The same disruptions in world financial markets that make Americans sweat over the price of fuel and fret about the value of their retirement accounts create an advantage for foreign tourists traveling to the United States.
The dollar has weakened steadily against European currencies over the past six months, allowing foreign visitors to get more for their money when they travel here. For most of the month of April, the euro hovered between $1.55 and $1.60 in U.S. currency. That means a $100 family meal at a Vineyard restaurant costs most European visitors the equivalent of about $64.
For the United Kingdom, the difference is even greater. A this week's conversion rate, every British pound will get you nearly two U.S. dollars. That means a $1,400 hotel bill costs the equivalent of about $700.
The Canadian dollar, which for more than a decade was worth substantially less than its American counterpart, was valued about even with the U.S. dollar this week.
At the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, a noticeable number of foreign visitors arrived looking for information this week. "We're pretty excited," said executive director Nancy Gardella. "This is a great time for folks from Europe to be visiting. While we are hyperventilating over our gas prices, to a European visitor, gas prices are very low. They're not at all intimidated."
The chamber is targeting foreign visitors by promoting tourism in a variety of ways, including direct advertising, participation in promotions by the Massachusetts Office of Tourism & Transportation, and through a marketing firm that promotes tourism in all the New England states.
At Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate, rental department manager Carol Shore said weekly vacation rentals are very strong compared to last year, and much of the increase is from foreign visitors.
"I've been in the business in many years," said Ms. Shore, "and really have never seen so much action coming from Europe. I think they're seeing the value. I've actually had conversations with prospective tenants that will say 'I want to spend 7,000 euros, show me things up to $12,000 to 13,000. They're getting a great deal."
Alexandra Zullo, a sales and marketing executive with the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, recently attended a tourism conference where she said travel writers and tour operators from Europe were eager for information about the Vineyard. "The year is much stronger," said Ms. Zullo. "You could see a strong influx. They are really looking, and they are willing to work with us." She said the Harbor View is already seeing an increase in summer bookings from foreign visitors.
At Martha's Bike Rentals in Vineyard Haven this past week, visitors from Western Europe, the Middle East, and South America were stopping in to rent bicycles for a two-wheeled tour of the Island.
"They have said that's why we're seeing them. It's a lot cheaper. Just this weekend we had people from Chile, Israel, Spain, France," said George Laktash, who works in the bike shop. "None of them want to wear helmets, though. Maybe one in 20 wear them."
Statistics from the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism show a strong trend upward in the number of foreign visitors arriving in the Bay State.
Historically, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy are the top five countries sending travelers to Massachusetts. Those nations are places where the weak dollar makes spending money in the United States especially attractive.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 2007 was a record year for international tourism, with 56.7 million foreigners visiting the United States, up 11 percent from the year before. The number of visitors from Western Europe increased 12.6 percent.
Home sweet home
The weak dollar has a reverse corollary for the American tourism industry. Americans find it much more expensive to travel to Europe, so they may be staying closer to home this year. Rising fuel prices may also have an effect.
"We're on the receiving end," said Ms. Zullo. "I think you're going to see a lot more domestic travel. You're going to see people taking vacations in their backyard because airlines are a lot more expensive."
While statistics are hard to come by, some Island business owners sense an earlier start to the tourist season. "It's far busier in this office this year compared to last year," said Ms. Gardella. "We're having many more inquiries from potential visitors."
Historically, when money is tight, the Steamship Authority sees an increase in ridership. "We fare better when there are economic hardships," said Gina Barboza, community relations manager for the ferry service. "They stay closer to home, take shorter trips."