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Date of Issue: September 08, 2005

Island tourism battles red tide, schools, gas prices, Mother Nature

Anna Maria Island tourism this past summer could easily be all things to all people. Island accommodation owners and managers reported a very mixed bag of occupancy for the summer tourist season.

While June and July tourism appeared to be the same as or better than last year, the red tide, beach renourishment, Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices and the early August start for Florida schools all contributed to a "slow" month for Island tourism.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Brockman said she's had good reports of summer tourism from members, but the Labor Day weekend was shaping up to be "soft."

Brockman noted a number of factors that may have affected August tourism.

"July was very good for our members, but the Florida kids went back to school in early August," she observed, comparing it as the "Grinch who stole summer vacation."

Indeed, summer is a traditional month for Florida families to head to the Island, but two years ago, the Florida Legislature mandated that school start in early August instead of the traditional day after Labor Day opening.

"We've lost a lot of family business from that," Brockman said.

But having a good summer tourist season could also depend upon location.

Accommodations along the beachfront in Holmes Beach appear to have taken the brunt of any tourism decline due to red tide and beach renourishment.

"August was the worst I've ever seen and we've been here 30 years," said Jeff Gerry of the White Sands Resort in Holmes Beach.

The beach renourishment project with its accompanying pipes and equipment ran right in front of the White Sands during late July and August, he noted. In addition, the red tide problem didn't help. "And school started early, so we lost a lot of families," he added.

Gerry did note that June and July were better than normal months for visitor arrivals.

While he expected Labor Day to be a sellout at the White Sands, his advance reservations were slow for that weekend. After that, "the next three weeks look very slow," he said.

Up in Anna Maria, where beach renrourishment hasn't even started, Nigel Brown of Anna Maria Beach Cottages, said his August arrivals have been "very good. Better than last year."

He acknowledged, however, that last August the Island was threatened by two hurricanes, which didn't help tourism. And with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, advance reservations for September are a bit slow, he observed. "Whenever there's a hurricane around, people don't think about a vacation and this September doesn't look as good as last year."

At the same time, reservations from European and United Kingdom visitors for late October and early November are steady.

"When they ask me the best time to come, I always tell them late October. The weather turns nice and prices are down. Hopefully, they've been listening," he said.

At Surfside Econolodge and Club Bamboo in Bradenton Beach, manager Marge Moran said red tide has really hurt business during July and August, while June was a fairly good month for occupancy.

"This is the longest period for red tide I've ever seen," she said. "It's really affected us, and you have to tell people before they come, otherwise they get very irate. We have to be honest."

She also noted that advance reservations for Labor Day weekend were slow.

On Friday, she said the resort is normally sold out for the holiday weekend, but a number of units were still available.

"Hopefully, we'll have a lot of walk-in traffic," she said. Red tide combined with rising gas prices and the effects of Hurricane Katrina could all be contributing to the apparent slowdown.

Susan Estler of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, however, was upbeat about tourism this summer.

Her feedback from members indicated that June and July were good months for tourism, but "as soon as the kids went back to school in August, it got a little soft."

CVB figures for July show occupancy for all Manatee County accommodations dropped slightly compared with July 2004, declining from 70.5 percent to 68.9 percent, but revenues from the bed tax increased.

But there's good news for Island accommodation owners and those who depend upon tourism for economic survival.

The CVB has an active marketing and advertising campaign under way with AirTran as the airline is now offering direct flights from Boston and Chicago to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Estler anticipates that the direct service and accompanying advertising about the area will lure visitors from those markets to the Island's shores.

Estler said it's too soon to say if rising gas prices will affect area tourism and she's confident visitors will continue to drive to Anna Maria Island. "At this point, who is to say what will happen?"

On the restaurant side of the ledger, beachfront eateries have had to face the red tide problem.

 "We have struggled with red tide," said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria along with the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach and the Mar Vista on Longboat Key, all waterfront locations.

"Our numbers are up from last year, but last August, we were closed three days because of the hurricanes. This year, there's no question that red tide has affected us."

There could well be another problem looming for Island accommodation and restaurant owners, observed Chiles.

"We're very concerned right now about the effect rising gas prices may have on discretionary income," he said. People may decide that can't afford to eat out because their extra money has been burned up by high prices at the gas pump.