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Three sectors drive LI tourism, but key factors hold back growth, experts say

Lack of hotel and meeting space and inadequate transit and transportation infrastructure put the brakes on growth for the $5.9 billion industry, they say.

The 60 wine producers on the East End

The 60 wine producers on the East End draw an estimated 1.3 million visitors each year for tastings and events at their vineyards, generating $39.7 million annually. Here, Dominique Bouchard-Morgan and her husband, Ricardo Morgan, from Park Slope relax at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck last fall. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

What drives Long Island's tourism economy?   

It's the Island's beaches and parks; its wineries, breweries, vineyards and farms; and its arts and culture offerings, from Gold Coast mansions to historic tours.

The $5.9 billion industry is fueled mainly by day-trippers, drawn here in the summertime primarily by those three sectors, according to Discover Long Island, the region's official tourism agency. 

Most visitors — 64 percent — come from New York State and nearby Northeast states, and once they're here, they spend most of their money on dining and shopping, according to the agency. 

About 9 million people visit the Island annually, their spending supporting nearly 100,000 jobs directly and indirectly, according to Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island. 

Hiring in the leisure and hospitality industry during the peak hiring season, April to June, rose to 24,500 jobs in 2018, surpassing the historical average of 18,000, according to New York State Department of Labor statistics. 

"Tourism on Long Island generates $722 million in tax revenues," Jarnagin said. "And there is still ample room for growth. We have the potential to welcome more visitors and become much more than a summer or weekend destination." 

Jarnagin and other local tourism experts agree there are challenges to achieving that growth. Limited hotel and meeting space inventory remains the top limitation, they said. 

The lack of a convention center to lure nationwide conferences, associations and events is preventing LI from tapping into a key demographic: the business traveler. 

"These are business executives and decision makers who travel Monday through Friday, year-round, on expense accounts," Jarnagin said. "A convention center would increase our tourism tax revenue by hundreds of millions annually."

Additionally, marketing efforts targeting visitors from long-haul destinations could help attract guests who stay longer and inject more money into the local economy, she said. 

Investment in mass transit and transportation infrastructure to serve travelers, such as the creation of north-south public transit corridors on Nicolls Road/Route 97 and Route 110, is also key, said August Ruckdeschel, East End projects coordinator at the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning. 

Initiatives that help visitors using the Long Island Rail Road to travel on the Island more easily are "the next phase" for local tourism, especially on the East End, he said. 

For example, during Long Island  Winterfest,  a promotion designed to draw visitors to the East End in the off-season,  "the North Fork Promotion Council offered a deal where [LIRR] riders were able to take free Lyft rides from the train to destinations on the North Fork between Riverhead and Orient Point, giving travelers from say, New York City, the ability to take a train ... right to quaint, iconic East End downtowns."

While most visitors travel to Long Island to spend a day at the beach, sip a glass of vino at a winery or tour a Gold Coast mansion, smaller numbers come to enjoy leisure activities like playing golf or watching the pros at sporting events such as the PGA Championship taking place in Bethpage through Sunday..

The coming Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer spending season for travelers and the busiest time of the year for LI's leisure and hospitality businesses. 

— Daysi Calavia-Robertson

Beaches and parks 

It's no secret that Long Island's beaches and parks are a tremendous draw for tourists and a powerful economic driver for the region's economy, said George Gorman, deputy regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The office has about 700 year-round employees and hires an additional 1,500 workers during the summer, he said. 

Last year state parks on the Island had nearly 26 million visitors, 1.7 million more than in 2017. At 8.5 million visitors, Jones Beach State Park -- the Island's star attraction -- recorded the largest visitation increase, up nearly 43 percent from the year before.

Gorman attributed the jump to the reopened Boardwalk Cafe, new “splash pad” water play area and games area, and a more accurate method of counting cars.

 Overall, "we get a lot of people from the surrounding areas, Connecticut or Pennsylvania, who make it a day trip,"  he said. "And of course, they're going to the restaurants, buying food at the concessions, grabbing a little something at the souvenir shops. It becomes a whole day of spending on this and that." 

Gorman said he expects Jones Beach to attract even more visitors this summer when it debuts Wild Play, a new outdoor ropes course with three aerial adventure courses including one just for kids.

Visitors will be able to ride a zip line while enjoying an ocean view, or — if they're really adventurous — take a (harnessed) 40-foot free-fall leap. 

— Daysi Calavia-Robertson

Wineries and breweries

Long Island’s 60 wine producers attract an estimated 1.3 million visitors each year, generating $39.7 million annually, according to the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning. Vineyard visitors spend an estimated $30.55 per visit.

“Wine country is an extremely important driver of tourism in Suffolk County,” since visitors who come for the vineyards frequently venture past the tasting rooms to visit a restaurant, farm stand or other attraction, said August Ruckdeschel, East End projects coordinator for the department.

The Island also has seen an explosion in the number of craft-beer brewers in recent years due in large part to state legislation that has made launching a beer business less expensive.

Andrew Luberto, grand master beer judge and board member of Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, said breweries have a “huge” impact on local tourism.

“They make towns destinations,” Luberto said. As many breweries — the Island is home to more than 40 now — have opened near others, they have created opportunities for visitors to engage in “brewery hopping” and often act as a springboard for other activities, including dining, shopping and nightlife spending in Long Island towns and villages.

One village poised to take advantage of beer’s impact this tourism season is Patchogue.

The village is home to Blue Point Brewing Co.’s recently opened 54,000-square-foot, $40 million brewery and restaurant.

“It will bring in people who haven’t come to Patchogue before,” said Mayor Paul Pontieri. “I’m expecting to see those bus tours.”

— Victor Ocasio

Arts and culture

Long Island’s arts and cultural institutions, including Gold Coast mansions and historic sites, are gearing up for the summer tourism season, their make-or-break time.

At Old Westbury Gardens, CEO Nancy Costopulos said up to 70 percent of visitors to the 1906 Phipps mansion and its English walled garden and woodlands come from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The estate averages 95,000 visitors a year when it has a special exhibition like the one planned for this summer -- a display of suspended sculptures by Polish artist Jerzy Kędziora that opens June 15. In years without an exhibit, 75,000 people visit, on average.

The historic site is increasingly using Instagram and Facebook to attract visitors, Costopulos said.

Proximity to the strong  New York City tourist magnet offers Long Island the chance to boost its own economy. “I feel the more we invest in tourism here, the more visitors will spill out from Manhattan to visit Long Island,” she said.

Old Westbury Gardens has an annual budget of $4 million and about 30 full-time employees. Its expenditures are part of $1.8 billion in annual spending by arts and cultural organizations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to recent Census data. The groups employ more than 22,500 people, higher than the local workforce of banks, real estate agencies or the federal government.

Still, more could be done to increase the economic impact of local attractions, said Margo Arceri, owner of Tri-Spy Tours, which takes visitors to sites tied to the Culper spy ring in the American Revolution.

The 6-year-old company serves 500 to 1,000 customers a year, who buy tickets from the Three Village Historical Society for its walking, biking and kayaking tours.

“We need to tap into the Long Island Rail Road and collaborate with them,” Arceri said. “My dream is to have a package with the [LIRR] where people from New York City come out and spend the day” in Huntington, Setauket or Port Jefferson.

Arceri said she also wants to develop trolley tours of historic communities.

— James T. Madore

Restaurants and retailers

Restaurant and retail spending are two of the key drivers of tourism spending on Long Island. Of the $5.9 billion that travelers spent overall in 2017, restaurants accounted for the largest share among all categories where purchases were made — 30 percent — according to a report by Tourism Economics, a Philadelphia-based travel data company.

Spending in retail, including gas stations, accounted for 16 percent.

For restaurants, the heart of that spending takes place during summers in the Hamptons, said Mario Saccente, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association’s Long Island chapter.

August Ruckdeschel,  East End projects coordinator at the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning, said the East End has  "truly become a foodie’s paradise in ways other parts of New York State would not come close to.

"The Suffolk County agri-tourism experience cannot be matched,"  going beyond restaurants to include pick-your-own farms and other food producers, he said.

And for many retailers on the East End, the summer season is make-or-break.

Shopping during the Christmas season used to bring in the most revenue at Stevenson’s Toys & Games, with locations in Southampton and East Hampton, said Roy Stevenson, who co-owns the business with his wife, Polly.

But online competition has cut into holiday sales, making the summer tourism season the biggest revenue generator — 60 percent to 70 percent of annual sales. “We do most of our business in June, July and August, because that’s when the people are here,” he said.

Summer sales keep the Sag Harbor Variety Store in business, said Lisa Field, who co-owns the 97-year-old business that her parents bought in 1970. The store sells housewares, beach supplies, personal care items, clothes, toys and other items.

Business is more challenging now because of competition from online retailers and big-box stores, Field said.

“We’re holding our own… the sales in July and August — that’s what pushes it over the top.  That keeps us here.” .— Tory N. Parrish

Sporting events

Big sporting events, which this year include  one of golf’s four major tournaments, attract thousands of visitors to the region.

The PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park this week will have an economic impact estimated at more than $100 million, according to the state. It’s the second straight year that one of golf’s main events came to Long Island. In 2018 the U.S. Open took place at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, where total spending related to the event crossed $120 million, according to estimates by the United States Golf Association.

Airbnb hosts in Nassau County reaped a windfall from this year's PGA Championship, according to data from the home-sharing company.

Hosts in the county were expected to make about $245,000 during the event, more than double the $117,000 recorded for the same period last year, Airbnb said.

While watching the pros is a big draw, not many tourists come to play the Island's courses, said Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island.

She said other sports and leisure activities, such as fishing, play only a small role in the Island’s tourism industry.

But another big event, the Hampton Classic Horse Show, which runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1 in Bridgehampton this year, will bring the East End economy about $13.6 million, according to the event's website. That includes about $4 million in audience spending on tickets, programs, parking, hotels and restaurants. — David Reich-Hale

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