- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Last weekend’s bout of foul weather failed to send the Mid-Atlantic beaches into a tropical depression. Summer has been good to them, tourism officials say.

Ocean City is on track to match the 4 million weekend visitors last year, while the number of visitors to the Outer Banks of North Carolina rose about 8 percent this summer. Official figures for Virginia Beach were not available, but anecdotal evidence suggests the summer started strong there.

Good weather has helped offset high gas prices to draw visitors, beach officials say.

About 3.8 million people have been to Ocean City this summer, Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the Ocean City Department of Tourism, said last week. The addition of Labor Day visitors is expected to bring that number to 4 million. The city measures water use to tally visitors.

“I would say it has been completely mixed,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “Some [members] say they’re having an excellent summer, some saying it’s very flat, some are very off. There’s no pattern.”

Mrs. Jones said high energy prices have cut into travelers’ disposable incomes. Although people are not eliminating vacations, they might be making them shorter or reducing the number of restaurant visits.

“Weekends have been really strong,” she said. “But weekdays have been less busy than in years past.”

She said the Caribbean has provided tough competition because of more direct flights from the Mid-Atlantic, lower rates during the slow summer season and hurricane insurance that protects travelers if a storm interrupts their trips.

On the Outer Banks, the number of June and July visitors rose a combined 7 percent over last year.

“June, July and August are very important months for our economy,” said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “You need to be able to sustain those revenues, and of course growth is great. In this competitive marketplace for leisure travelers, it’s tough.”

Rain, wind and overcast skies from Tropical Storm Ernesto caused some hotel room cancellations on the Outer Banks on Friday, Ms. McCormick said. But by Saturday most of those rooms had been re-booked with hotels reporting occupancy rates from 70 percent to 75 percent, or 5 percent to 10 percent below a typical Labor Day weekend.

Many hotels dropped their customary three-day minimum stay to boost sales, she said.

“We did lose some customers because of the weather, but overall we had a fabulous weekend,” Ms. McCormick said yesterday. “The beautiful thing was the weather picked up after Friday, so a lot of people who canceled re-booked.”

The scene was similar in Ocean City, where good weather and crowds returned Saturday, Ms. Abbott said yesterday.

“It looks like a pretty good weekend, all things considering,” she said. The Labor Day weekend “was not a washout, by any means.”

The storm caused a few cancellations at the Breakers Resort Inn in Virginia Beach on Friday, but the 56-room oceanfront hotel was fully booked by Saturday, manager Craig McManus said yesterday.

“The storm pretty much wiped out Friday, but by Saturday everything was up and running,” he said.

Summer business has been spotty at some Virginia Beach hotels, with strong bookings in June, early July and August that slowed at the end of July, said Ron Kuhlman, director of tourism and marketing at the Virginia Beach Convention and Tourism Bureau. Official numbers aren’t available.

Although Labor Day traditionally marks the return to work and school, the beaches continue to market to tourists with fall concerts, reduced rates and promises of no crowds.

“Many, many years ago, our season literally ended with Labor Day weekend,” Ms. Abbott said of Ocean City. “That’s not the case anymore. September can be busier than a June.”

Fall festivals have been planned around cars, bicycles, planes and Oktoberfest.

Mr. Kuhlman said more than 55 percent of the annual visitors to Virginia Beach arrive between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Many fall visitors hike, bike, walk along the beach or take bird-watching or whale-watching tours.

The Outer Banks is hoping to become an international beach destination.

Tomorrow, Monarch Airlines plans to announce a direct flight from Kent County Airport in Britain to Norfolk International Airport, Ms. McCormick said. Officials hope the flights from May to October will bring British travelers to the Outer Banks, and perhaps to Virginia Beach.

“In the international market, the key is how quickly you can get the visitor to the destination,” Ms. McCormick said. “The first step is getting an airline to fly direct.”

Southern Delaware Tourism, which tracks visitors at Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany beaches, did not return calls for comment last week.

Sean Lengell contributed to this report.



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