The results of one San Juan County visitor survey are in and it’s the islands’ isolation that draws crowds.
“People don’t come here for the Jersey shore, they come because they want to have more solitude,” said Dona Wuthnow, executive director of San Juan County Parks, Recreation and Fair department.
For the first time, San Juan County staff has insight into why people visit the islands. County staff administered surveys to Washington State Ferries passengers and visitors at local attractions, last summer, to answer the question, why are the islands a tourist attraction?
Wuthnow presented results of two county-led parts of the study to the county council on Jan. 9. The presentation included a survey of WSF passengers and an inventory of lodgings used by tourists. Wuthnow said the full report will be available in February.
About six times as many tourists as locals completed a survey given to WSF passengers from last May through September.
Of the 772 passengers questioned in the ferry lines when leaving the islands, the majority said they most enjoyed the county’s rural scenery. They also enjoyed hiking on beaches, viewing marine wildlife and the friendliness of locals. The “lively village scene” was the most unpopular selection from 14 pre-written answers.
Most of the visitors came to hike, either on trails or beaches. The least popular options were to whale watch on their own, charter a sailboat and go on a bike tour.
When asked about overcrowding, most reported that parking at attractions and in villages was highly congested, but parking at trails and beaches was not.
Those surveyed were in favor of the county acquiring more public beaches, improving traffic during ferry rushes and increasing village parking. They were least interested in increasing RV camping and developing the county to accommodate more people.
The report also included an inventory of local accommodations. Hotels are the most common type of accommodation on San Juan Island, while on Lopez it’s campgrounds, and on Orcas it’s vacation rentals available online.
The report estimates that the county has a little under 900 vacation rentals available through Airbnb and VRBO, which stands for Vacation Rentals by Owners. These companies allow people to rent out accommodations online. Countywide, Airbnbs, VRBOs and campgrounds offer the most units to overnight visitors.
Wuthnow said the project was commissioned by the local terrestrial managers group, which is comprised of managers of county public land agencies and nonprofits involved in public lands and conservation.
“The purpose of the project is to understand more about visitors to the county and to get some real data about public land use and available capacity,” said Wuthnow.
The county and San Juan Island National Historical Park staff financed the study, which includes various components. San Juan Historical National Parks Service Superintendent Elexis Fredy said she helped spearhead the project. The parks staff has been collecting tourism data for 30 years, she added, and helped to count visitors at local attractions for this study.
San Juan County Councilman Rick Hughes noted that the study’s findings could be used in the update of the county’s comprehensive plan, which manages local growth for the next two decades. Part of the update ensures local infrastructure, like roads, can support the summer’s population increase.
Councilman Jamie Stephens said results could be used to determine the distribution of lodging tax funds. This charge is a local sales tax visitors pay for accommodations, like hotels. Funds support facilities that promote tourism and promotions that attract tourists to events. Understanding visitors’ interest would help to allocate those funds better, he said.
“Up until now it’s always been anecdotal,” said Stephens about suggestions to use lodging tax funds.
Public meetings and workshops on the study will be held the week of Feb. 26 on different islands, but the exact dates and locations have yet to be set. View the presentation below.
The San Juan Islands Visitor Study Preliminary Findings: Ferry survey and accommodation inventory