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    War's impact on tourism hard to gauge

    Some business owners say tourists are not willing to spend money. Others blame the economy for the downturn.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- The war in Iraq has shown that on any given day it can unsettle investors on Wall Street, but it's not as clear what effect it has for tourists on Dodecanese Boulevard.

    What is clear, say Sponge Docks merchants, is that business in their corner of Florida's tourist economy has dropped this year.

    Kleopatra Georgiou and her husband have sold seashells and spanakopita on the Sponge Docks for almost 20 years and have seen their share of ups and downs. But these days, she said, business could not be worse.

    "People don't want to spend money," said Georgiou, who owns a restaurant and neighboring gift shop just off Dodecanese.

    Georgiou, 57, is one of several Tarpon Springs business owners interviewed last week who worry that a protracted conflict in the Middle East could have a serious effect on the city's vital tourism economy.

    Though Pinellas County tourism officials say the Tampa Bay area's tourism economy remains strong despite war tremors, some local business owners were ruffled by recent projections that Florida could lose $3.9-billion in tourism dollars during the conflict with Iraq.

    On a good day, Georgiou brings in about $800 from customers at her Greek restaurant Opa!. On those days the flow of Sponge Docks traffic is thick with snowbirds and vacationing Canadians and Germans looking to spend. Lately, however, the crowds have been thin and Georgiou said she's lucky to average $200 a day.

    "We have to stand outside and have to beg people to come into the shop," she said.

    Like other shop owners near the Sponge Docks, city Commissioner Peter Nehr said sales at his three stores there have fallen off this spring.

    "It's not nearly like it should be," Nehr said. "The streets are about half as full as they normally are."

    Nehr said sales were down by about 35 percent and echoed other business owners' view that tourists were less willing to part with large amounts of cash. Despite a seeming upswing in patriotism brought on by the war with Iraq, sales at his flag shop on Dodecanese are not nearly as high as they were in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    "Instead of buying four flags maybe they'll buy two," Nehr said. "Even during the first Gulf War we did tremendously better."

    The commissioner blamed people's poor perception of the economy for the downturn in sales, not the war.

    Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, agreed that perceptions, not reality, are the biggest concern for the area's tourism economy. March tourism figures compiled by the Pinellas County tourism marketing agency Ketterhagen works for were not yet available, she said, but the bureau has received few reports of cancellations from hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on tourism.

    "So far, our numbers for the county seem to be holding strong," Ketterhagen said, "Anecdotally, we're hearing from most of the proprietors that they're doing very well."

    The Tampa Bay area receives an average of 5-million visitors a year. The annual economic impact for tourism in Pinellas County is about $5.5-billion, Ketterhagen said. The number of overnight visitors to the area is not broken down by city, but much like the area's sugar-sand beaches, Tarpon Springs is a significant draw for many tourists, she said.

    The number of overnight visitors to Pinellas County in January, the midway point in Tampa Bay's four- to five-month-long tourist season, was down slightly this year. The county saw an estimated 232,527 overnight visitors in January, compared to 235,034 the same month last year.

    For Sponge Dock boat tour owner John Billiris, these days there are still plenty of customers, but he has had other problems. He blames sluggish winter business on a string of weekends ruined by bad weather. On Wednesday, dozens of tourists lined up in front of Billiris, 82, to buy tickets for his 90-minute tour. Attracting customers is no problem, he said. But keeping up with skyrocketing fuel prices is another story. A few weeks before the war, Billiris paid about 98 cents for a gallon of diesel fuel. Now he pays $1.68 a gallon.

    "It was a little bit of a shock when the fuel bill came and it was $400 for two days," Billiris said.

    The tour boat owner was forced to raise ticket prices from $5 to $7, he said.

    Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce president Richard O'Neil doubts the war has much to do with business owners' complaints about tourism. The overall economic slowdown after Sept. 11 events is the real culprit behind any flagging of the tourism economy, he said.

    "Some of the merchants say (tourists are) walking down the street but they're not buying anything," O'Neil said.

    Call volume to the chamber of commerce, often a central source of information for many tourists, has taken a precipitous drop this year with just 791 calls received in January, compared to 1,336 calls in January 2002. However, the number of walk-in visits rose with 3,169 visits this February compared to 2,572 in February 2002.

    The fluctuation in numbers demonstrates the mixed bag of successes and failures local merchants are bound to feel at any given time, let alone during a time of war, O'Neil said.

    "Some people are saying business has slowed down," he said, "others are saying it's picked up."

    A little less than a mile away from the Sponge Docks, in downtown Tarpon Springs, business is still good, but not quite as good as it used to be, say many shop owners there. Antique store owner John Tarapani says tourists and visitors still arrive in a steady stream at his Tarpon Avenue shop but they're not as eager to spend on big-ticket items. Antique knickknacks such as china or candelabras are far more likely to sell.

    "It was actually slower before," Tarapani said. "People were hesitant to buy anything when it was uncertain what would happen" with the war.

    -- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or rondeaux@sptimes.com.

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