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Tourism's hot winter

Rising gas prices and air fares aren't enough to prevent some encouraging numbers in the first quarter, especially in the Tampa Bay area.

Published April 9, 2005

Florida tourism apparently rang up a big winter season even as gas prices climbed and air fares inched up.

The final numbers aren't in, but state and local tourism officials say visitor traffic for January and February was strong, and hospitality businesses were encouraged by big crowds last month.

"It looks like the first quarter was really good," said Bud Nocera, chief executive of Visit Florida Inc., the state government's nonprofit tourist marketing agency. "We've heard it was even better than last year . . . which bodes well for the future."

Hotel and motel occupancy for Florida during the first two months of the year rose nearly 9 percent, to 75.4 percent, over the same period in 2004, and the average room rate was up 7.3 percent to $118.82, according to a survey by Smith Travel Research.

For Tampa and St. Petersburg, occupancy jumped 9.1 percent, to 73.5 percent, and the average room rate rose to $94.69, an increase of 9.5 percent over the first two months of 2004, the survey reported.

Peak winter season is the most important period for Florida's visitor industry, which is the state's largest employer. Hotels have their highest occupancy rates in the first three months of the year and charge the highest rates.

"The lodging industry is very, very optimistic," said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "March may be the strongest in history, and hotel and condo managers believe that's continued into April."

Tourism experts say consumer confidence in the economy has fueled the travel boom. The weak dollar attracts more European visitors and a harsh winter drove sun-seekers to Florida from the Northeast and Midwest.

Bargain air fares also helped bring more travelers to Tampa International Airport, which handled more than 3-million passengers in January and February, an increase of 12.7 percent over the same months of 2004.

Most traditional airlines increased fares in $10 to $20 increments last month to offset sky-high fuel prices. But the prices remained low enough to keep planes nearly packed, said Louis Miller, executive director at Tampa International.

Tourism officials are watching gas prices with concern about the effect on summer travel.

Unleaded regular hit a record price of $2.26 per gallon Friday in a nationwide survey of more than 60,000 stations conducted for AAA. That was 29 cents more than a month earlier and 49 cents higher than one year ago.

The federal government projected Thursday that prices would jump to a peak national average of $2.35 in May and average $2.28 from April through September.

"We're concerned but have heard nothing yet to show gas prices are an issue with travelers," Nocera said. "As of today, they don't appear to have affected visitors' plans."

Travelers would reconsider driving to Florida on vacation when the price rises to between $2.50 and $3.10 per gallon, said Walter Klages of Klages Group, which conducts research and surveys for the travel and tourism industry. "We're getting pretty close to that on premium," he said.

Last year, travelers grumbled when gas began to rise toward $2 a gallon, said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa. They found ways to save a few dollars on vacation but didn't stay home, he said.

"They might scale back on the number of hotel nights . . . or not eat so much in restaurants," Laskoski said. "When it comes to planning a vacation, most families will simply bite the bullet."

Visit Florida received $4.75-million from the state this year to convince tourists it's safe to vacation in Florida during the June-to-November hurricane season.

But if gas prices scare off long-distance visitors, Nocera said, some of that money could be used to target Floridians or residents of nearby states in the Southeast.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified April 9, 2005, 07:10:29]

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