Wind farm a boon for island tourism

Says URI researcher
Thu, 06/20/2019 - 5:00pm

The Block Island Wind Farm has led to an increase in tourism on Block Island. That’s according to a research study conducted by Corey Lang, an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, whose study on the subject notes a 19 percent increase in rental occupancy on Block Island during the months of July and August. Lang was assisted in the research study by Andrew Carr-Harris, a doctoral student.

“We have multiple indicators for the tourism market, and they seem to be indicative that there was an increase in interest in visiting Block Island in the year after construction of the wind farm,” said Lang, who noted that while the data didn’t indicate the exact reason for the increase in rental occupancy, people were curious about the wind farm and visited the island. 

“I think there has been some excitement about it,” said Lang, who works in the department of environmental and natural resources economics. “People are excited about renewable energy and sustainability, and they want to get behind it. So, for the nation’s first offshore wind farm, we believe our results indicate that it has had a positive effect on tourism.”

Lang said, “There are other factors that could be at play” in driving the rental occupancy increase, including the perception “that there is better fishing near the turbines, so more people may be coming to the island to go fishing.” The foundations of the wind farm’s turbines have created artificial reefs, leading to a proliferation of sea life.

Lang’s research study is called, “Sustainability and tourism: the effect of the United States’ first offshore wind farm on the vacation rental market.” Lang said the “research study was not funded nor influenced by the offshore wind industry. It was funded by Sea Grant through a competitive process, and Sea Grant did not influence the work in any way.” Various URI departments worked hand-in-hand with offshore wind developer, Deepwater Wind, throughout the construction process associated with the Block Island Wind Farm

Rhode Island Sea Grant is one of 33 programs in the National Sea Grant College Program and located at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Per its website, Sea Grant’s 2018 to 2022 strategic plan will guide investment in the program’s funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the National Sea Grant Program.

According to a press release regarding Lang’s research, “The researchers collected lodging data from Airbnb to examine trends in monthly revenues, occupancy rates and reservations from roughly two years before construction of the turbines, to one year after construction was completed.” Construction on the wind farm began at the beginning of August of 2016 and was completed in about two week’s time. The researchers “compared Airbnb rental trends on Block Island to those in nearby communities that are also dependent on summer vacation rentals, such as Narragansett, Westerly and Nantucket.”

“Results suggest that construction of the Block Island Wind Farm led to significant increase in nightly reservations, occupancy rates, and monthly revenues for properties in Block Island during the peak-tourism months of July and August. Specifically, we estimate that, during each peak-tourism month of July and August following construction, the wind farm caused a seven-night increase in reservations, a nineteen percentage point increase in occupancy rates, and a $3,490 increase in monthly revenue compared to (Narragansett, Westerly and Nantucket.)”

“Block Island offers an excellent setting for examining visitor preferences for the wind farm because the tourism industry is the backbone of the local economy. While home to about 1000 permanent residents, Block Island can host up to 20,000 visitors per day during peak summer season (New Shoreham Planning Board, 2016). Thus, by establishing a baseline and examining post-construction movements in the vacation rental market relative to other tourist destinations, we infer how tourists, in aggregate, respond to the wind farm. If the overall tourist experience changes because of the wind farm, then the vacation rental market will change accordingly.”

Lang said that the curiosity factor regarding the wind farm could dissipate over time, and “the long term trajectory might be very different. If it’s driven by curiosity; then we might expect it to return to normal.”

As for how a 19 percent increase stacks up compared to other communities, Lang said, “It’s a good question. There's not much in the academic literature that estimates tourism impacts of various events, and this is the first study of tourism impacts of offshore wind using observed market data, instead of a survey, so there's not much to compare it to.”

Lang said his next study would involve research examining the impact of the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm on property sales. “We will be looking at Block Island properties, but also properties located in other tourist locations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and looking at sales before and after construction, to see if there is a relative change in Block Island sales prices.”