Can Nantucket survive the stress of year-round tourism?

can nantucket survive the stress of year round tourism
can nantucket survive the stress of year round tourism

Last summer, the line for beloved Nantucket restaurant Black Eyed Susan’s would often snake down India Street — but waiting in line was worth it. A small, unpretentious and slightly offbeat space, it’s popular with both longtime visitors to the island as well as “year-rounders.”

This summer, however, co-owners Susan Handy and Jeff Worster were unable to open. Demand was not the issue — finding staff who were able to live on an increasingly expensive island was.

Black Eyed Susan’s was not the only one. A host of other Nantucket institutions did not open their doors this season, including: Fifty-Six Union, Keeper’s, the Pearl and the Boarding House. On a small island even five or six closures is devastating. Pair that with record-breaking numbers of visitors to the island, and it’s simply never been harder to get a restaurant reservation.

The struggle to get a table for dinner, however, is small potatoes relative to Nantucket’s other impending issues.

Exterior of Black EYed Susan's.
Some of Nantucket’s favorite eateries, like Black Eyed Susan’s, shuttered this year due to lack of staff.
Black Eyed Susan’s
A plate of tuna tartare.
The restaurant was famous for its tuna tartare.
Black Eyed Susan’s

Automobile traffic on the island has never been worse, according to more than a few locals. Check-in lines at the airport (assuming your flight can even take off on time) often leave visitors baking in the sun for hours. A hotter-than-ever real estate market is pushing out long-term renters and lifelong locals alike.

And, perhaps above all else, the environmental impacts of putting so many people on such a 48-square-mile stretch of sand are starting to strain resources and harm its ecosystems.

Nantucket is on a collision course for disaster — and may soon become a case study for unsustainable tourism.

Aerial view of Nantucket.
New flights are bringing more tourists than ever to Nantucket’s shores.
Getty Images

According to figures provided by the Nantucket Data Platform, an independent public info organization, the island has a year-round population of 19,900. The average summer population in 2021 swelled to 58,090, up from 34,430 in 2014. The town forecasts its summer population to exceed 80,000 by 2026.

In years past, Bostonians and New Yorkers dominated the island between Memorial Day and Labor Day, often taking ferries or “air taxi” services, and like clockwork those visitors would clear out after summer. Now, larger airlines such as JetBlue, Delta and United offer service well into October and sometimes November, extending the traditional 12 week summer high season late into fall.

“We used to be 90% air taxi and 10% large carriers, but now that has reversed,” said Noah Karberg, Nantucket’s assistant airport manager.  “Today, 80% of airport customers actually come from other markets like Oakland, Calif., and Billings, Mont.”

People at a concert on Nantucket.
Nantucket’s summer population continues to swell, and that’s not a good thing.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Real Simple

Meanwhile, the real estate market surpassed a record $2.3 billion in sales volume in 2021, furthering the wealth divide between the island’s affluent vacation set, and its year-rounders.

“We do more and more work with less employees every single year,” said Tobias Glidden, a 10th-generation Nantucketer whose family owned Glidden’s Island Seafood, a fish market, which first opened in 1898. He feels strongly that landlords who have converted housing into short-term rentals have exacerbated the crisis.

“Homes are for people, they’re not businesses,” said Glidden. “Any home operating as a business in a residential area should be shut down. Homes are the foundation for society. If you’re willing to rent out your home, you better be willing to rent out your daughter and your wife because that’s what comes next.”

Exterior of 76 Main hotel.
Nantucket rents are soaring, creating a dearth of housing for workers and the year-round residents that maintain the island.
Adam Policky

But for many homeowners its simple economics: Why rent out your house for $2,000 a month to a local, when you can rent it out for $10,000 a week for 12 or 16 weeks a year to vacationer?

The growth of year-round and seasonal populations is also stressing the island’s resources.

Electricity, which is delivered to the island via two large underwater cables connected to Cape Cod, reached a peak load this summer that was 8% higher than last summer. If some sort of event should make just one of those two cables inoperable, the island could experience catastrophic power outages.

Exterior of Nantucket Island.
The island’s delicate ecosystem is high susceptible to damage from pollution.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Increased pollution is also causing harmful algal blooms in the island’s ponds, and decimating eelgrass beds which serve as important marine habitat and carbon sinks. Despite a number of town initiatives over the years to address nutrient pollution and to stabilize levels of nitrogen levels in Nantucket Harbor, according to Emily Moldon, executive director of the Nantucket Land Council, “the ecosystem still shows significant signs of degradation.”

The decrease in eelgrass beds, for example, has caused the annual harvest of Nantucket’s iconic “Nantucket Bay scallops” to plummet to a mere 3% of what it once was during the early 1980s.

“The bushel count last season was 3,200. One of our lowest,” said Molden. “More people are buying homes and boats … which is great, but I think we need to rethink our policies and practices on boat traffic, nutrient pollution, all of it.”

But many of the island’s year-rounders take the good with the bad. For local photographer Charity Grace, who has lived on island year-round since 2015, the precious shoulder season months used to be a time to recharge. Now they are often just as busy.

“There’s been an increase in all of my businesses,” said Grace. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t salty that the secret is out.”