Clouds Pass And Tourism Forecast Is Sunny As Ever

For a barometer of this year’s tourist season, ask Ed Ponder to find you a good table in South Beach.

“I don’t ever recall having more difficulty in making dinner reservations,” said the chief concierge at the National Hotel. “Ever.”

It’s the kind of complaint that has Ponder’s superiors sounding giddy as they boost rates with gusto. Like hotels across South Florida, National executives are savoring preliminary numbers suggesting this tourist season could be the first to show gains over 2001, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks devastated the industry.

“This year is going outrageously well,” said Jeff Lehman, general manager at the National. Rates are up 20 percent to about $360 a night at the 150-room South Beach hotel, while occupancy percentages remain in the high 90’s.

Those figures match the region’s performance as a whole. For January, rates were up 13 percent in Broward County, 11 percent in Miami-Dade County, and 5 percent in the Keys, according to Smith Travel Research.

“Our business is as good as ever,” said Richard Stanczyk, owner of the Bud N’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina in Islamorada, home to a fleet of charter fishing boats and a small motel.

SEVERAL FACTORS

A recovering economy, a weak U.S. dollar and South Florida’s appeal as a winter getaway all have bolstered the region’s $17 billion visitor industry this year.

If sustained, the strong numbers should retire jitters that Florida’s summer hurricane barrage would hurt the region’s high tourist season, generally seen as running from Jan. 1 to Memorial Day.

Executives still worry that tourists and conventions will steer clear of Florida once the storm season begins June 1. But for now, they say the numbers offer nothing but encouragement.

“February is going to go off the charts,” said Broward tourism chief Nicki Grossman, noting January’s record $2.3 million in bed-tax receipts, which hotel guests pay. “We’re looking at months that are the best ever.”

But not everyone is celebrating tourist season.

“Last year, this place was out of control,” lamented Bruno Vieira, a South Beach party promoter trying to sign up out-of-towners for a $10-a-head bash at the Mansion club one recent night. But while guest lists seemed easier to fill last year, Vieira said March has brought a definite improvement.

“Thank God it’s picked up,” he said. “We were getting desperate.”

Other merchants and restaurant staffers in South Beach agreed with Vieira, but the mixed reviews of the season’s performance may reflect economic nuances in the sprawling tourist economy.

As hotels boost rates, that leaves fewer discounted beds for younger vacationers seeking the kind of late-night parties Vieira hawks.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks hammered the visitor industry in South Florida, and hotels promptly slashed rates to fill beds.

Discounts lingered. At the start of 2004, rates were off between 1.5 percent and 4 percent for Broward and Miami-Dade compared to 2001. But Smith Travel’s figures for January show that this year’s rates beat the results for January 2001 by about 5 percent.

NATIONAL TREND

Tourism is up across the country, prompting a similar rise in hotel stocks. Bloomberg’s Lodging Index soared 53 percent in the past 12 months, compared with a 7 percent lift in the broad Dow Jones Index.

But South Florida appears to be outpacing the industry at large.

Among the country’s top 25 hotel markets, January saw Miami post the second-highest room rate ($146.35, compared with New York’s $167.50) and occupancy rate (78.7 percent, second only to Oahu’s 84.6 percent). February’s numbers will be released later this month.

Miami-Dade still hasn’t matched the 11.1 million overnight visitors logged in 2000. That’s because of the continued lag in international visitors: 2004 saw 5.7 percent more domestic visitors compared to 2000, but 7 percent fewer foreign ones.

Broward, a smaller tourist market, did not see a drop-off in visitors after 9/11, in part, thanks to Fort Lauderdale’s popularity with low-cost carriers.

STORM CLOUDS

Many thought last summer’s strong performance would allow 2004 to finish ahead of 2000, thus retiring much of South Florida’s post-9/11 woes. The series of four hurricanes ruined those predictions, but hotels remained determined to raise rates for tourist season.

Now they’re testing how high they can go. Kathy Buchanan, vice president of planning for the Yankee Clipper and Yankee Trader in Fort Lauderdale, said a “phenomenal” January gave way to a flat February in revenues because the two hotels were “

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