Changing Routes for Tour Buses Hurt Shops at Aquinnah Cliffs

By KATE BRANNEN

There is only one listing under Tourist Attractions in the Vineyard Yellow Pages. It's the Gay Head Lighthouse at 9 Aquinnah Circle. Despite its status as one of the Island's most breathtaking views, fewer tourists than usual will see it this summer due to a change in tour bus routes.

On a recent day at noon, Adriana Ignacio, owner of On the Cliffs, one of the shops on the Aquinnah Circle, stood in front of her store, looking up and down the lane. Except for two people in line at the The Dreamcatcher, a food stand across from her shop, the walkway was empty. No one was shopping. A year ago, at that time of day, it would have been bustling with activity, she said. Noon used to be known as "the bus hour."

But the bus hour has disappeared, making for a quiet summer at the cliffs.

"We're not seeing the people that are buying mementos," said Berta Welch, who owns Stony Creek Gifts with her sister Carla Cuch. She said this is easily the slowest summer for business they've seen. The two sisters grew up in the shop, which their mother started 54 years ago,

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Due to rising gas and insurance prices, Island Transport Inc., the Island's only tour bus company, has changed its operations and now offers two tours instead of one full Island tour. This means fewer buses make the trip up to the cliffs. As a result, the merchants, who rely heavily on the delivery of day trippers to their shops, are suffering due to the drastic decrease in foot traffic.

"We don't have a port or downtown area, so the need is greater for them to come here," said Donna Mazza Perry, co-owner of The Dreamcatcher.

In years past, the tour bus company offered only one tour, which made an entire loop of the Island, regularly bringing customers up to Aquinnah, in addition to the other Island towns.

In an effort to address their own decline in customers, Island Transport Inc. decided to offer two tours this summer, hoping to make better use of their fleet of buses.

"We've been declining since 1998," said Chad Metell, manager at Island Transport.

Because the Island is becoming less of a tourist attraction and more a resort destination, Mr. Metell said there was a need to change the business strategy. "We've had a larger demand to spend less time on our buses and more time in the towns shopping," he said.

The move to two tours was made in conjunction with the decision to take trolleys out of the daily tour service. Before, they were used to do the down-Island tour, taking passengers to shop in Edgartown. The trolleys are now used exclusively for weddings and the buses drop passengers off in Edgartown for an hour as part of the Martha's Vineyard Island Tour, which also goes through Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury.

"People get tired of looking at trees and hearing corny jokes," said Tom Dresser, a tour bus driver and author of Tommy's Tour of the Vineyard. "People seem to like it better because there's not as much time on the bus."

The company also offers a separate Aquinnah tour, which takes passengers up scenic South Road and drops them off at the cliffs for a half hour to eat and shop.

The Island tour leaves regularly from Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, but the buses to Aquinnah wait until they are full before they make the trip.

Mr. Metell said the buses can seat 44 people and in years past they were sending them to Aquinnah with 12 to 14 people on board.

"Now we're maximizing our equipment and going up with full capacity," he said. But this means that on average only two buses a day go to Aquinnah.

Ms. Mazza Perry kept track of the buses last summer in order to stock enough food for customers at the Dreamcatcher. She still has the slip of paper for May 22, 2006 when she recorded the arrival of 13 buses and noted that nine of them were full.

The bus company has told the merchants that if the demand is there and they can fill the buses, they will send them up.

"We are all just wondering, why suddenly is there a loss of interest in coming to the Gay Head Cliffs?" said Ms. Mazza Perry. "They are certainly one of the most beautiful spots on the Island with their view of the surrounding islands and beaches."

For a day tripper with a limited amount of time on the Island, the Island tour may be a more desirable option than waiting for a full bus to Aquinnah, even if the payoff in terms of scenic beauty is greater.

Both tours are two and a half hours long and each costs $23. But the Aquinnah tour racks up more mileage and therefore operates at greater cost to the company.

"I can't please everybody," said Scott Dario, owner of Island Transport, a company that has been in his family for years. "I'm trying to give the best positive experience I can for my patron."

He said the same way the shops at the cliffs rely on the tour buses, his company depends on the number of passengers coming over on the boats. He described it as a pyramid effect. Unfortunately the shops at the cliffs are at the very top. Their success is reliant on other businesses.

Mr. Dario said he has met with the merchants, selectmen and members of the Wampanoag tribe in an effort to find solutions to the problem. He said he tries to market and prominently advertise the Aquinnah tour.

It is well highlighted on the tour company's Web site. "Gay Head is recognized worldwide for its dazzling red clay cliffs and natural beauty," the site says. And the tour is listed above the other tour. However, there is an asterisk next to the description that reads, "Aquinnah tour ticket is only available at Martha's Vineyard Sightseeing kiosk on Circuit avenue," while the Island tour ticket is listed as available at a number of locations.

Mr. Metell said it is possible to buy the ticket at other places, including the Steamship Authority terminals, despite what's advertised on their Web site.

Mr. Dario echoed the worries of the merchants on the cliffs, saying the decline of the day tripper is hurting his business as well. He also said he believes recent protests against tour buses traveling on certain roads represents a negative attitude toward tourists.

"The Island caters to summer residents," he said. "It doesn't cater as well to the families and seniors who used to flock here."

Residents of Moshup Trail in Aquinnah, Music street in West Tisbury and East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs have complained about the tour buses using those roads.

"If it had to do with conservation I would agree," Mr. Dario said, but he believes residents just don't like seeing tour buses on their streets.

"I fought it with East Chop Drive and now I'm fighting it with Music street and Moshup Trail," he said, adding that people seem to forget that the Island is based on tourism. "What better way to embrace the day tripper than by allowing them to see the natural beauty of the Island?"

Mr. Dario holds licenses that protect his company from being barred from certain roads. But out of courtesy to town residents, he said he tries to comply with their wishes. He currently does not use East Chop Drive as part of his daily tour.

"We have no problems whatsoever using Moshup Trail," he said.

Mr. Dario said he's not alone in feeling the impact of the decline of the day tripper. His fellow businessmen in Oak Bluffs talk about it all of the time, he said. Their businesses are hurting.

"I'm hoping it's just a cycle. I wish business was thriving. I don't think we'd have this problem in Gay Head if it were," he said.

For the time being, the shop owners have little choice but to wait for more buses to arrive and begin thinking about alternative ways of getting customers out there.

The Vineyard Transit Authority could benefit from all of this, but for now the typical day tourist doesn't know about the public buses, and to get to the cliffs from any of the ferry towns requires more than one transfer.

"Maybe what will develop is the tribe could get into eco-tourism," said Ms. Welch.

Along with the other shop owners, she said it makes her sad to see such a unique place of natural beauty left out of the main tourist loop. She said Moshup Trail and the cliffs are "our Grand Canyon. Without the cliffs, they're not getting an Island tour at all."