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Date of Issue: June 23, 2010

Island catching tourists from northern Gulf

Deepwater Horizon oil hasn’t drifted in the direction of Anna Maria Island, but some tourists are drifting in from the northern Gulf Coast.

“A lot of businesses have said they are picking up people,” said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman.

In mid-May, with the leak continuing at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon well and the spill growing at a rate of about 2 million gallons of oil a day, Island businesses and Florida tourism bureaus were inundated with questions about the impact.

Some accommodations reported canceled reservations and others reported a drop in bookings. To date there have been 42 canceled reservations in the county.

“We’ve had three cancellations altogether,” said Amy Talucci of Spinnakers Cottages in Holmes Beach. She also reported that bookings for July, usually a no-vacancy month, are down.

Ken Gerry of White Sands Beach Resort in Holmes Beach reported cancellations, including that of a wedding party and a family reunion, due to concerns about oil.

Real estate agents also shared reports of concerned potential buyers, including one Island agent who said the sale of a condo fell through because the buyer was worried about oil.

Yet the business outlook is a lot brighter on Anna Maria Island than is the murky oil 366 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.

May was a strong month for home sales on the Island despite the expiration of the popular first-time homebuyers tax credit and the expanding Deepwater disaster, according to statistics from the Manatee Association of Realtors.

Twenty-four single-family homes sold on the Island last month compared with 13 single-family homes sold in May 2009. Condo sales — the number and the price — also went up from May 2009 to May 2010.

May, the month during which news of the oil spill dominated newspaper headlines and opened TV newscasts around the world, also was a busy month for the Island chamber.

Brockman reported 1,278 visitors to the chamber and 738 requests for packages from potential vacationers in May.

“And May is a slow month for us,” she said. “But we’re doing well.”

Additionally, would-be northern Gulf vacationers are checking out Anna Maria Island.

“We’re gaining a lot of people from the Panhandle,” said Island businessman David Teitelbaum, who owns several resorts on the Island.

Gerry reported just one vacationer had drifted down from the Panhandle to his resort, but, he added, “We’re still running pretty full.”

To spread the message about the Island’s conditions, the chamber and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau are directing advertising to the northern Gulf, Brockman said.

The marketing campaign is getting an assist from Island businesses, including Anna Maria Island Resorts, Cedar Cove Resort and Cottages, the BeachHouse Restaurant and the Beach Bistro, which have installed web cameras to show beach conditions on the Internet.

“We want to get the word out,” said Ed Chiles of the Chiles Group, which owns the BeachHouse, Sandbar and Mar Vista restaurants. “Our water is clean. Our beaches are sugar white. Our business is good. We’re open for business.”

The campaign also is getting an assist from Island cheerleaders — from elected officials such as County Commissioner Carol Whitmore to beachfront residents such as Victoria Jones — who are posting “beautiful beach” photographs and videos to Facebook and YouTube.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” said Whitmore.

“I take a sunset photo a day,” said Jones. “Then post to Facebook. My friends know what’s here.”

The unified response is “wonderful to see,” commented Brockman.

However, she is concerned about tourism in the fall.

“September bookings have started to cancel,” she said.

Gerry said, “We’re doing OK now. Right now the impact is minor, but the potential is great.”

To address tourists’ concerns, the chamber is encouraging its members to offer guarantees similar to those offered for hurricane season — returns on deposit in the event disaster strikes.

Teitelbaum said such a policy is being offered at his resorts.

“We’ve adapted our hurricane policy and that’s convincing people,” he said.

“It is working,” said Brockman.