- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Business was down at most beaches in the mid-Atlantic this summer, the result of cooler-than-usual weather and the slumping national economy, officials say.

More than 4 million people visited Ocean City between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but that was a 4.4 percent decline from the 4.2 million people who visited during the comparable period in 2000.

Some hotels and restaurants are reporting a 15 percent to 20 percent decline in summer business this year, the city's Chamber of Commerce said.

More than half of all visitors to the Eastern Shore resort town come during the summer, when local businesses generate about $400 million in hotel and sales taxes, the city said.

Many of Ocean City's visitors stayed just a few days this summer instead of a full week, one potential reason why the drop in business was sharper than the decline in the number of visitors, said chamber Executive Director Linda Wright.

"People were really shopping for bargains this year," she said.

Local businesses that have bucked the trend include the Phillips Seafood Restaurants chain, which has three locations in Ocean City. Business in the restaurants' buffet rooms rose 10 percent to 20 percent this year, while business in the sit-down dining rooms was relatively flat, said Reba Felty, the chain's sales director.

"A lot more families chose the buffet dining this year," she said.

Business was slow at other major beaches in the mid-Atlantic. Roughly 6 million people visited North Carolina's Outer Banks this summer, about the same as last summer, said tourism officials in that area.

One exception was Virginia Beach. Early estimates suggest that city experienced a 4.5 percent increase in summer visitors this year, said James B. Ricketts, director of the local Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The exact number of summer visitors is still being determined, Mr. Ricketts said. About 3 million people visit Virginia Beach annually, and more than half of those visits occur between September and May.

"We did fine. We're evolving into a year-round resort," he said.

The tourism officials in Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks dismissed suggestions that shark attacks in those areas last weekend would dampen future business. A spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents trade group said Florida did not experience a drop in business after a shark attacked a boy along the Gulf Coast in early July.

"These are freak accidents. We have more car accidents than shark attacks," said Angie Brady-Davis, spokeswoman for the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.

Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said the cost of beach vacations in the mid-Atlantic is rising, the result of an increase in the cost of doing business.

In Ocean City where some middle-of-the-road hotels charge as much as $200 per night businesses are dealing with the increased cost of unemployment insurance and rising wages, Ms. Jones said.

In addition, corporate chains are increasingly taking over Ocean City's mom-and-pop hotels. Also, at least 15 of the largest innkeepers in town have upgraded their properties in recent years, Ms. Jones said.

"If you have a nicer place to stay, it's going to cost more," she said.

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