Sussex County tourism industry evolves

Quest Fitness & Kayek will add land-based tours in the future.

By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times

Until recently, a guided tour in Sussex County primarily meant a kayak or stand-up paddleboard trip. Things have changed. While waterway tours remain popular, many now have a theme, from birds to brews to lighthouses. Meanwhile, several for-profit businesses offer guided land tours.

Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, calls the trend an evolution.“We’ve long had great self-guided walking tours, but from a mobilization standpoint, as far as connecting the town dots in Sussex County, it’s been hard for visitors or residents to find a group that would pick them up and make it compelling and fun.”

Evidently, the entrepreneurs are filling a niche. “We’re kind of bowled over by the demand,” said Jody Dengler, who with her husband, Steve, founded the science-focused Sun Otter Tours in June 2017. “We prepared ourselves for it not working out, but we didn’t prepare ourselves for success. Last summer was a complete surprise.”

In Sussex County, tourism generates $1.7 billion in annual gross domestic product and results in 18,000 jobs. For every $1 spent by a visitor, $1.20 is generated in indirect sales to the local economy.

The beaches and bays are a major draw, and outfitters like Quest Fitness & Kayak and DelMarVa Board Sports Adventures have done a good job of designing tours for water enthusiasts, Thomas noted.

Quest has offered tours since 2000. “The majority are based on kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding,” said owner Matt Carter. But there’s a variety of options, including sunset, sunrise and dolphin tours. The Pints and Paddles tour includes a trip to the Dogfish Head brewery in Milton. Quest has also teamed up with the
Lewes Historical Society for specialty tours.

Cape Water Tours and Taxi, which started in 2012 as a transportation service between Lewes and Dewey, is now mostly dedicated to themed cruises. Owner Dave Green has about 12 different types, including cruises to the lighthouses and tours featuring live music.

Tours on the land, however, have mostly been limited to nonprofit groups, such as the Lewes Historical Society, or self-guided tours, such as the Maritime Walking Tour in Lewes. That’s not the case in other tourist-centric towns, where guided tours focus on ghosts, gravestones, architecture, neighborhoods, restaurants and art.

Dmitiry Shcherbenko and Brit Fossum stand in front of the Dogfish Tree on the Beer, Wine and Spirits Tour by Delmarva Discovery Tours
Dmitiry Shcherbenko and Brit Fossum stand in front of the Dogfish Tree on the Beer, Wine and Spirits Tour by Delmarva Discovery Tours.

Eating Rehoboth in 2013 was one of the first private ventures to plug the niche. The walking/eating tour of downtown Rehoboth has grown so popular that owners added a third day to the weekly seasonal tours. The first tour in 2018 is sold out — and it’s not until May.

Last season, Janis and George Markopoulos, who own DelMarVa Board Sports Adventures, bought a 14-passenger van and started Delmarva Discovery Tours. “They’re intimate, and I would consider them to be high quality,” Janis Markopoulos said. “We offer door-to-door service; nobody has to drive.”

Land-based tour businesses aren’t just in eastern Sussex County. In 2015, Hildegard Rieger started Greenwood-based Relaxing Tours, which focuses on the county’s west side. “There are places and things that have been here since the 1700s, and some are so untouched — they’re the same as they were when [17th-century sailor/explorer] John Smith was here,” she said.

Her audience is mainly local residents. “It’s amazing the amount of people who’ve lived here for a long time and haven’t seen so many of the sites,” she said.

Thomas is pleased that many of new and old businesses play off Sussex County’s strengths. Delmarva Discovery Tours features trips that focus on brews, antiques, nature or history. But the most popular? “We didn’t expect it, but the family farm tour took off,” Markopoulos said. “Moms and dads want their kids to put their iPhone down and learn where a carrot came from.”

Adults, not kids, are the target audience for Sun Otter’s science-based tours. “Our market is really 50-plus,” Dengler said. Tours have concentrated on marine ecology, beach science and “the alchemy of alcohol.”

Due to customer demand, however, a tour for 2018 will offer beach activities for grandparents and grandchildren, Dengler said. Matt Carter of Quest Fitness & Kayak plans to add land-based tours in the future. Dave Green of Cape Water Tours is always looking for new ideas, but he’s not ready to buy a van. Instead, he’d like to partner with Delmarva Adventure Tours.

Between the water and the land, there’s plenty of room for more tour companies, he said. Dengler would agree. “We have good relationships with each other,” she said. “We are all under the impression that what’s good for one of us is good for all of us.”

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