More and more tourists are flocking to Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket during the fall, extending the season not only beyond Labor Day, but also well past Columbus Day.
With the three-day holiday weekend approaching, some hoteliers say their advanced bookings are the strongest in years, with at least a few reporting double-digit increases from the fall of 2011. For example, advanced bookings at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in North Falmouth, along with the Harbor View Hotel and the Kelley House in Edgartown, are up about 15 to 20 percent compared with last autumn, said Robin Kirk, president of Scout Hotels, which operates the three properties.
In Chatham, Paul Zuest, general manager at Chatham Bars Inn, said reservations are not only strong for the Columbus Day weekend, but bookings for late October and November are also surpassing last year's. And Mark Snider of the the Winnetu Oceanside Resort on Martha's Vineyard said nearly all his 60 suites are sold out every weekend through Oct. 21.
Fall has become an increasingly popular season for the Cape and Islands, and increasingly important for hotels, restaurants, shops, and other businesses in these traditional summer hotspots. At one time, the tourist season all but ended on the Cape and Islands on Labor Day. But today, fall activity accounts for 20 to 30 percent of annual revenues, area business owners said.
Several factors are contributing to the strength of fall tourism this year, according to Cape and Islands business officials. The proliferation of travel sites and other Internet technologies has made it easier for tourists to find off-season travel bargains, while local chambers of commerce promote the region's art galleries, theater showings, and cultural festivals that continue into the fall.
The season's mild weather so far hasn't hurt either, attracting people to the seaside with the promise of bonus beach days.
Bill Zammer, who runs four restaurants and two hotels, including the Coonamessett Inn, as the owner of the Cape Cod Restaurants Group, said he believes this year's rise in fall travelers is largely the result of the improving economy.
"There are still people who are employed and who do want to take a break," Zammer said. "It used to be the last one across the bridge shut off the lights on Labor Day."
Fall visitors include wedding parties, retirees, and European travelers looking to experience a New England fall. But more than ever, autumn vacationers also include empty-nesters looking for some R&R after dropping the kids at college and city dwellers sneaking off for a quick getaway after finding a last-minute deal on the Internet.
Vacation rentals for the fall are up 13 percent compared with last autumn, according to WeNeedaVacation.com, a website that lists some 3,500 properties on the Cape and Islands.
"Fall has always been a really good time for us," said Michele Pecoraro, vice president of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. "September and October are especially excellent times for people who don't have children in school."
The Steamship Authority, which provides ferry service to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, said the number of passengers has increased about 4 percent over this time last year. William P. DeSousa-Mauk, a spokesman for the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, said some visitors are even having trouble getting car reservations for the ferry this fall.
This week, for example, he was unable to book passage for the vehicle of a TV crew shooting on Nantucket because there was no room on the ferry.
"The boats are just full every day," DeSousa-Mauk said, "which is unusual for this time of year."
Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said her organization is hearing that hoteliers and other businesses are seeing "a real bump" in customers this season.
"This [trend] has definitely taken off the last couple of years," Gardella said, "but it seems to be gaining momentum as we speak."