Newport This Week

Cruise Ships Cancel, But Signs of Recovery Exist

Aquidneck Island took another hit this week to its economic comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic with the news that all cruise ships have canceled reservations with Newport for the entire 2020 season. Despite that news, which will cost the city around $800,000 in tax revenue and $15 million in tourist spending, there does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel, said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport.

Slowly, the island is reopening. Lodging capacity at 17 area hotels that responded to a Discover Newport survey was at an average of 47 percent on June 6, although the numbers for June 5 were less encouraging, at 36 percent, and occupancy rates for midweek remain extremely low.

Meanwhile, the Newport Car Museum, the Audrain Automobile Museum and two mansions, The Breakers and The Elms, have reopened. Also, Newport Polo opened its 29th season on June 6 at Glen Farm in Portsmouth. And two new hotels are set to open soon; Hammetts Hotel on June 26 and Brenton Hotel on July 4 weekend.

“It’s going to be a slow and, I hope, steady recovery,” Smith said.

Most importantly, he said, is that Americans are becoming more confident about traveling. According to the most recent study by Longwoods International, a market research company that tracks American travelers, 44 percent would feel safe dining in restaurants, shopping in stores and traveling outside their community, up from 31 percent on May 13. In addition, 46 percent said the pandemic has greatly impacted their travel plans in the next six months, down from a peak of 67 percent and the lowest level since March 11.

“It shows that with each week that goes by, more and more people are starting to feel comfortable about going out and feeling that maybe it’s OK to take a vacation,” Smith said. “What we’re looking forward to, more so than the special events, weddings, conferences and cruise ships, is the consumer confidence building. We’re already seeing the needle start to slowly move up.”

That’s not to say the Newport economy hasn’t been crushed by COVID-19. All its major special events, from the music festivals and flower shows to the U.S. Senior Open golf championship and the tennis Hall of Fame Open, have been canceled. Losing approximately 70 cruise ships, housing around 130,000 passengers, during the slower fall season certainly doesn’t help. But the cruise ships represent only 4 percent of the visitor population to the island, making it what is considered a secondary market.

Still, cruise ship passengers are desirable tourists, Smith said, and losing them hurts. “They don’t bring cars, they invest in the economy through attractions, shopping and even dining, and they are of a demographic age-wise and income-wise that is the type of visitor Newport wants,” he said. “We were hopeful that the cruise ship market would happen to help in our recovery.”

But he wasn’t surprised when Destinations North America, which provides services to 90 percent of the cruise lines in North America, including Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America and Carnival, announced it was canceling all reservations to Newport after Canada issued a no-dock order through Oct. 31.

“When Canada said no to everybody, we expected it to happen,” he said. “They said, if we’re not going to Canada, we’re not coming here.”

Therefore, Smith said, fall won’t look all that much different than summer. “The picture of the summer season was painted a month ago. What’s coming into clarity now is that the fall season is going to be pretty much like the summer season,” he said.

But last weekend’s hotel occupancy numbers provided some hope. Smith had forecast only 25 percent occupancy for the month of June. “They performed pretty well last weekend; better than I thought they would,” he said. “We’re starting to get a pulse, some life back, which is exciting.”

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