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‘Busiest ever’ tourist season winds down

By Rick Catlin, Islander Reporter

With the parking lot at the Manatee Public Beach full, overflow parking is found along Manatee Avenue near Gulf Drive in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

The past three months have been the busiest tourist season they’ve ever seen say a number of island business people. The numbers of visitors and accommodation occupancy figures are likely to set records, several in the industry say.

The visitors and seasonal residents are gradually leaving as April 15 approaches, said Rita Kollar of Gulf-Bay Real Estate.

She said her vacation rentals were booked solid through April 7, but then occupancy begins to open up. By the end of the month, she’ll have vacancies for anyone arriving in late April or early May.

“But it was a very busy season,” she said.

Jesse Brisson, also of Gulf-Bay Realty, said this was the busiest season he’s had since he’s been in the vacation rental business. Rentals managed by the company were booked solid from Feb. 1 through April 1.

“A great season for the industry,” he said. “The best I’ve seen in the past 12 years.”

David Teitelbaum, who owns five resorts in Bradenton Beach, said his properties have been full since the beginning of February, and a few vacancies only started appearing on his books around April 8.

“We’ve been jammed. Definitely the best season I’ve ever seen on the island,” he said.

Teitelbaum said it’s been “quite a ride the past three months.”

As a board member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council and the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, Teitelbaum said he hopes tourism figures for the season will be presented at the 9 a.m. April 15 TDC meeting at Holmes Beach City Hall.

With tourism already up 9.5 percent from the previous year, according to a report presented to the TDC in January from Research Data Services Inc., Teitelbaum said he expects even greater growth when February and March are added to the data.

RDS is retained by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to compile statistics on tourism arrivals, expenditures and attractions visitors enjoy. RDS occupancy and visitor figures for any single month are typically delivered to the BACVB about six weeks after the end of the month.

Deb Meihls of the BACVB said she was not surprised that many visitors remained on the island after Easter and spring break.

With Anna Maria Island ranked No. 4 in a TripAdvisors.com Traveler’s Choice survey of U.S. island destinations and with cold winter still up north, “I would say this is expected traffic,” Meihls said.

“And we now have a curiosity factor from TripAdvisor for those who have not been here before,” she added. Meihls also was pleased that the spring break crowds appeared well-behaved and suitable to the overall ambiance of the island.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce vice president Deb Wing said February and March were “very busy” at the chamber with visitors seeking lodging at the chamber office daily during those two months.

But the number of walk-ins and phone calls for accommodations dwindled a bit the past week, she said.

Wing said she wouldn’t be surprised to see tourism at an all-time high for the 2013 winter season.

The number of visitors also benefited retail shops and restaurants.

Linda Bouziane of Mister Roberts Resort Wear in Holmes Beach said the store was full nearly every day.

“We had a great season. We’re all very happy. It was one of the best-ever seasons and I wish it would continue. Definitely a very busy time for us,” she said.

Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria, the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach, and MarVista on Longboat Key, said business was up at all three restaurants, even when the weather wasn’t so great.

“It was warm enough most days this season and getting the (remodeled) Sandbar open in time for the season was a big help. We had very strong numbers at all three restaurants. I’m pleased, even though some days were a bit cool. Everyone does better when the weather is great,” he said.

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale offered his perspective on the season, saying it was certainly one of the busiest, if not the busiest, he’s seen in his two decades on the island.

“Many years I’ve said it’s just the normal traffic for a winter season, but not this year.”

“This year, I’m saying it’s been one of the busiest I’ve ever seen for traffic,” the chief said.

“There were so many backups, some going as far back as from Cortez Road to the Longboat Pass Bridge,” Speciale said.

When necessary, Bradenton Beach police officers used traffic control procedures, but when the Cortez Bridge was raised this season, there wasn’t much anyone could do to get motorists moving, the chief noted.

“It’s been a long season for our officers,” Speciale said.

Speciale might not have too long to enjoy the break from traffic.

Meihls said the BACVB is planning a number of events this summer in the county that should draw day visitors to the island. Meihls said advertising programs also will bring visitors to the area.

The summer tourist season on the island is just around the corner.

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