Motels dwindle on tourism’s winding road


Motels dwindle on tourism’s winding road

Jamie BiesiadaSeasonal tourism is the lifeblood of the small Jersey Shore town where I live. Manasquan and its neighbors depend on the flocks of regio

New PwC survey: 70% of travelers approve of vaccine verification
Bucket list Britain: The lockdown has over a third of us planning their very first bucket list
A new Kerzner hotel brand emphasizes fitness and well-being

Jamie Biesiada

Jamie Biesiada

Seasonal tourism is the lifeblood of the small Jersey Shore town where I live. Manasquan and its neighbors depend on the flocks of regional visitors who start arriving each year, right around this time.

Often, they rent houses for the summer or return to unlock the doors to their second homes — many of which, incidentally, became primary homes for former city dwellers during the pandemic.

Our borough historian, Mary Birckhead Ware, put together a book of historical photos, “Images of America: Manasquan,” and one particularly sticks out in my mind: A horse-and-buggy-lined beach full of people celebrating Big Sea Day in the early 1800s (we still hold that event today).

Travel and tourism dates back to antiquity. Inns and taverns populated Greek and Roman towns and the routes between destinations, and Thomas Weiss writes in “Tourism in America before World War II,” published in the Journal of Economic History, that the story of nonurban resorts drawing North American city dwellers predates the establishment of the U.S. as a country. 

Transportation issues hampered tourism development in the early 1800s, but things picked up after the Civil War, when trains provided easier, and cheaper, access to nearby beach areas.

Modes of transportation were again to influence tourism’s vitality in the next century. Tourism really went gangbusters and opened to the middle class with the rise of automobile touring in the 20th century, alongside a rise in income, according to Weiss. The quintessential American motel came into play before the Great Depression and grew in popularity in the following years, especially post-WWII, when car ownership soared.

Now, with the proliferation of home rentals in the area, motels aren’t the attraction they once were, but we still have a number of them around. And there is evidence that their popularity resurged with Covid, thanks to their open-air passages and locations adjacent to interstate highways, making them convenient choices to a new wave of road-trippers. With their unique signs and architecture, they’re a fun reminder of simpler times.

The Amethyst Beach Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.

The Amethyst Beach Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

But they won’t last forever. Two that are just a few minutes south of me are on the chopping block: Wenke’s Motel in Point Pleasant and the Amethyst Beach Motel in Point Pleasant Beach. The former, which hasn’t been operational for several years, is slated to be torn down. The town is attempting to seize the latter with eminent domain to put in a new parking lot.

It’s a shame to see them go. Wenke’s, in particular, has some real character, especially with its 18 cottages that could be rented for a “home away from home” feeling, as the motel advertised in an undated brochure. I’m sure the right investor could modernize the facilities, despite its age (it’s more than 50 years old, according to real estate documents).

There have been efforts to preserve some bastions of the rich history of roadside America. The National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is one, but Wenke’s is several states east of where that legendary roadway began heading west. The Society for Commercial Archeology is another.

I suspect it would take more than a little effort, and cash, to turn around a property that’s half a century old. Especially today, when the value of the land likely supersedes the value of the structures. And if demolition makes room for a new business to draw tourists to the area (or, I suppose, a parking lot to house their vehicles), I can’t argue with that.
But it always feels like a bummer when they pave what was once someone’s paradise and, quite literally, put up a parking lot.