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Date of Issue: December 29, 2005

Christmas tourism lagging

Tourism pic
Lonely Island
Island beaches have been nearly deserted the past few weeks as the Christmas holiday vacation season has apparently gotten off to a slow start. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Island accommodation owners and hoteliers are hoping the Christmas tourism season will bring an overflow crowd to the Island, but preliminary indications are that holiday reservations are lagging.

"It's been a slow start, but from Christmas on it looks good," said Mary Ann Brockman of Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce. "People are waiting until after Christmas."

Because Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, she believes many families have opted to hold off on that Island vacation until after Christmas.

Brockman said her office has been getting "lots of calls and e-mails" inquiring about an Island vacation, but some members are saying they are not getting the "early arrivals" for Christmas. Others, however, say advance reservations for the holidays are good.

Last Wednesday, the chamber office got 125 e-mails asking about accommodations, either for the Christmas holidays or later in the season.

"So we are getting the interest, and I'm hopeful those will turn into reservations. I'm optimistic," Brockman said.

Susan Estler of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said it's too early to say if the Christmas season will be good for area hotels and accommodations.

During the past few years, visitors to the area have tended to wait until the last minute to make a reservation, rather than booking well in advance as they have in the past.

The Island and the Manatee area could use some good tourism news.

Although Estler said visitor figures for November were not yet available, visitor arrivals to the Bradenton area were already down about 5 percent from last year through September. High gas prices, red tide and the belief among many potential visitors that hurricanes had damaged the Island and surrounding area all contributed to the decline, she indicated.

But gas prices are down, the Island didn't get hurt by Hurricane Katrina and the red tide has disappeared.

"People need to know we're here and open. We haven't been affected by the hurricanes and the red tide is gone," said Brockman.

Indeed we do, noted Tom Buehler of Haley's Motel in Holmes Beach.

"It's still pretty slow. We're 50 percent down for Christmas week from last year at this time. We're hoping it picks up real soon. I thought the cold weather up north would bring people here early, but it hasn't happened. By February, however, we should be OK," he said.

Marge Moran at Club Bamboo Resorts in Bradenton Beach wonders where are all the visitors.

"This is the slowest I've ever seen. I just don't understand it. Usually, when it gets cold up north, people head for the Island, but not this year."

She has noted that many guests have complained about the pipes on the beach left by Goodloe Marine for the beach renourishment project.

"When people rent a beachfront unit, they don't want to look out and see rusting pipes on the beach. It's a tough sell. I'm hoping they'll get rid of those soon."

But Island visitors tend to arrive at the last minute, she conceded. Although advance reservations for the Christmas-New Year's week were slow, Moran is expecting walk-in traffic will pick up. As a daily rental accommodation, Club Bamboo often gets people who have just arrived on the Island and have just started looking for a place to stay.

"We usually get a lot of drive-up traffic Christmas week," she said. "Let's hope they're still coming."

At the White Sands resort in Holmes Beach, Jeff Gerry said the week before Christmas was the slowest of the entire year.

"Usually, we're at 80 percent occupancy the week before Christmas, but not this year. I just think a lot of it is bad publicity about the Island with the hurricanes, red tide and beach renourishment," he observed.

This week, however, business is picking up.

"We're at 85 percent occupancy for Christmas week, so, hopefully, people are just holding off their vacation plans."