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Date of Issue: February 23, 2006

Island tourism nosedives in January, thanks to pipe to nowhere

Tourism on Anna Maria Island fell by 22 percent in January 2006 compared with the same month last year, and most Island accommodation owners and tourism officials agree the pipes left on the beach by the renourishment contractor are the likely culprit.

The latest figures from the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau show Island occupancy in January was just 29.3 percent against the 37.5 percent occupancy recorded in January 2005. It was the lowest occupancy rate for any January on the Island in the past four years.

While Island tourism was sinking into the sand, tourism to the mainland remained strong in January, with occupancy reported at 72.4 percent compared with 72.9 percent for the same month last year.

The tourism decline was partially offset by an increase in the average daily rate for an accommodation in the Bradenton area, which rose from $123.99 for January 2005 to $135.59.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Brockman said feedback from members indicates that the pipes on the beach along with warm weather up north didn't help occupancy levels in January.

"We've heard about a number of cancellations because of the pipes. It's ridiculous. Every one of our members is affected by a drop in tourism. If no one is staying here, no one is going to retail shops, renting beach equipment or eating out at restaurants," she said.

She also attributed the warm weather up north to some of the decline in tourism, but noted that interest in the Island this past January was just about the same as January 2005.

"We had 1,470 walk-in visitors to the chamber this January asking about the Island, compared with 1,500 last January, so we didn't see a decline in interest in the Island," she added, observing that tourism for February has really picked up according to chamber members.

She also noted that mainland occupancy for January 2005 is just about the same as this past January. Brockman surmised that some visitors decided not to stay on the Island after learning about the pipes and equipment.

That's a sentiment that Rich Hazen of Angelina's Sea Lodge in Holmes Beach would agree with.

"January was awful. We've been here six years and it was our worst January. We've had cancellations from people once they drive up and see the pipes. We're doing everything we can to make our guests comfortable, but I have a following and I have to tell them about the pipes. I've never had a January like this," Hazen observed.

Thankfully, the pipes will be removed soon and the weather up north has turned cold.

"February and March occupancy is looking real good. We've only got a few openings left," he said.

At the Club Bamboo Resort in Bradenton Beach, Marge Moran said January wasn't the worst she's ever had, but it certainly wasn't great.

"Let's just call it mediocre at best. The pipes didn't help and I've had several complaints from some of my regular, long-term visitors," she noted. "Getting across the pipes is a big problem for some of our elderly guests."

"But February has turned out great and March is looking real good, so I guess the cold weather up north is helping."

Not all accommodation owners believe the pipes are the sole reason tourism is down.

Bill Shearon of the Linger Longer Lodge in Bradenton Beach said the renourishment pipes are about three blocks north from his units, but January was still a slow month for the establishment.

"January was just dead for us and the pipes haven't even reached us," said Shearon, who is also a Bradenton Beach city commissioner.

"I don't know all the answers for the slow month, but my guess is that it was a combination of the pipes, red tide publicity and the warm weather up north," he said.

While February occupancy has picked up considerably and March is looking real strong, Shearon worries that the stalled renourishment project won't resume in time to save some of the threatened beach areas in his city.

"If they pick up the pipes, they might not return and the south end of Bradenton Beach may never get sand," he said.

The CVB reported that occupancy levels for all of 2005 in the Bradenton area were at 61.6 percent, down slightly from the 65.7 percent average recorded in 2004, but still higher than the 59.7 percent level for 2003.