- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Beaches close to the Washington and Baltimore areas enjoyed brisk summer business, tourism officials said, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina washed out what looked to be a promising Labor Day weekend for the tourism trade.

Beaches in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware benefited from a hot and sunny summer that brought marginal to moderate increases in tourist traffic.

But several hotel owners in Outer Banks, N.C., said soaring gas prices led to room cancellations and smaller crowds.

The Hatteras Marlin Motel in Hatteras, N.C., which was rebuilt after taking a direct hit from Hurricane Isabel in 2003, was only half-full during the weekend, said Tim Midgett, president of Midgett Realty, a Hatteras vacation rental company that runs the motel.

“Just when we thought we would have a complete summer season, Mother Nature came and interrupted the weekend,” said Mr. Midgett, who blamed high gas prices for the low weekend turnout.

Before last weekend, the Hatteras Marlin had a 70 percent to 80 percent occupancy rate all summer, he said.

The Colony IV by the Sea Motel reported four to five cancellations last weekend.

“We had a decent summer, but I think high gas prices really hurt the Outer Banks this year,” owner Nicholas Nuzzi said.

The hotel, which reopened Memorial Day weekend after a two-year, $1 million renovation to repair damage caused by Hurricane Isabel, averaged a 70 percent occupancy rate this summer, Mr. Nuzzi said.

About 530,000 Washington-area motorists were expected to travel more than 50 miles last weekend, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. But officials of the auto club had cautioned that motorists could cancel or cut their trips short as gas prices at some area stations jumped by as much as 80 cents in a 24-hour period last week.

Washington-area gas prices yesterday hit a record of $3.23 per gallon on average, with the national average reaching $3.05 a gallon, AAA reported.

Last week, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau reported a high volume of tourists calling to ensure the region had enough gasoline. Parts of the state had reported shortages, and the governor had urged residents not to travel.

Despite the rising gas prices, the Outer Banks enjoyed a 9 percent increase in the number of overnight travelers in June and a 14 percent jump in July compared with the summer of 2004, according to a bureau report.

“We continue to be carefully optimistic,” said Carolyn McCormick, the bureau’s managing director.

Ocean City, Md., hotels also reported increases in tourism dollars during the summer months.

The Cayman Suites Hotel boasted an average occupancy rate of 90 percent in July and August, said Mary Eastman, owner of the 57-suite hotel on the north end of Ocean City. The rate in June was slightly more than 50 percent, she said.

Ocean City raked in $1.88 million in hotel room taxes in June, up almost 7 percent from $1.76 million in June 2004, according to the most recent data from the town’s tourism department.

Ocean City projected it would have more than 4 million tourists this summer, and the town appeared to be well on its way to reaching the goal, with 3.78 million visitors by the end of August.

But the gas price fallout from Hurricane Katrina brought room cancellations for the Labor Day weekend, said spokeswoman Donna Abbott, adding that she wasn’t sure Ocean City would reach its goal.

Virginia Beach expected to have a “marginally better” summer this year than it did in 2004, said Ron Kuhlman, spokesman for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Last year, the beach played host to 2.8 million out-of-town guests, 44 percent of them during the summer, Mr. Kuhlman said.

At Rehoboth and Dewey beaches in Delaware, more tourists were visiting the region but renting more condominiums instead of staying in hotels and motels, said Carol Everhart, president and chief executive officer of the area’s chamber of commerce.

The area has added thousands of condos in the past few years, she said.

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