Would you want to watch wild horses run on the beach? Would you return a year later to see them again? Seeing them is to experience wonder, and with an increase in visitors will the wonder diminish? The question Worcester County is asking this summer is, if visitors return in even bigger numbers, how do they prepare?
Last summer many Americans escaped their city for the beach to take in nature at its most beautiful. There are few places in the United States where you can view wild horses, and Assateague Island in Worcester County, Maryland is one of them.
Worcester County is a special place to Marylanders. For starters, it’s the only place in the state where the ocean meets land. It’s where families flock to each summer for that classic beach vacation and where I practically lived as a teenager. This past summer, the unique draw of Assateague Island highlighted what separates them from the pack of neighboring beaches, or should I say “herd.” Some believe the horses are survivors of a Spanish shipwreck off the coast centuries ago. Others believe they were simply sent to the island from mainland farmers to avoid fencing laws that were being imposed. Either way, the wild horses are an incredible draw that needs to be preserved.
Harnessing Zartico’s operating system, we know visitor volume to the entire county significantly increased between July - September 2020, just four months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Day trips increased 135% and overnight trips by 100% compared to the same time period in 2019, pre-pandemic. Where were travelers going? How did they move about the county? How do patterns compare to 2019? The Worcester County Economic Development and Tourism Office partnered with Zartico to answer these questions.
We found that Assateague State Park and the 37-mile long Assateague National Seashore were the top places visited in Summer 2020 within the county, across all origin markets and all trip types, and attracting day-trippers and overnight campers from the tri-state area. Using a year-over-year heat map, the island is beaming with green indicating significant visitor increases compared to pre-pandemic levels.
We also examined cross-visitation patterns. How did Assateague Island visitors move about the county? They moved quite a bit. We immediately noticed a triangular pattern between the Pocomoke State Forest, about 30 miles west with over 25 miles of hiking trails, and the Ocean City Boardwalk, about 12 miles north with a three-mile stretch perfect for a bike ride or evening stroll. It was clear travelers came to Worcester for its outdoor attractions.
As we move into a new world, with the pandemic largely behind us, we know traveler patterns will look different this summer. Zartico will be working with the Worcester Tourism Office to identify these changes in real-time and strategize how to keep the momentum going, and the intimacy preserved.
One thing’s for sure, Assateague’s horses are beautiful, tough, and wild, a perfect reflection of Worcester county and the people who live there.