POLL: Despite oil spill news, Collier and Lee resorts booked for Memorial Day weekend

Abby Legge, and dog Wrigley, lie on Bonita's dog beach this Thursday watching boats pass though the Gulf waters. Kera Holzinger/Special to the Daily News.

Photo by KERA HOLZINGER // Buy this photo

Abby Legge, and dog Wrigley, lie on Bonita's dog beach this Thursday watching boats pass though the Gulf waters. Kera Holzinger/Special to the Daily News.

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— Local hoteliers expect a sizzling weekend.

With the “unofficial” start of summer this weekend, many hotels don’t have a room to spare.

“Just overall, Memorial Day weekend is always a good holiday weekend for us. This seems to be no exception, from Marco through Naples. Even the off-the-beach properties are all reporting nearly full,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In Florida, this region may be bucking the trend.

While AAA projected a 5.4 percent increase in the number of Americans traveling nationwide for the holiday weekend this year, it predicted more Floridians would stay home.

“Even though the housing market has lightly bounced back, we still have a very large number of foreclosures, which is really what we attribute this decline to,” said Jessica Brady, a public relations manager for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa.

Based on a survey done before the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, AAA forecasted that 1.53 million Floridians would travel this year, down 4.8 percent from last year.

Lani Renee splashes blessed Gulf water from her bucket over a group gathered at Bonita Beach during a ceremony to heal the Gulf from the oil spill on May 16, 2010. A group of about 25 spiritualists led by Renee of Sacred Space in Bonita, blessed the Gulf water and sent it to heal the oil spill. Renee said they hope more people will take part in such ceremonies to help heal the Earth. 'We want to make people conscious of the power we have,' Renee said. 'We're the antenna and conductor.' Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo

Lani Renee splashes blessed Gulf water from her bucket over a group gathered at Bonita Beach during a ceremony to heal the Gulf from the oil spill on May 16, 2010. A group of about 25 spiritualists led by Renee of Sacred Space in Bonita, blessed the Gulf water and sent it to heal the oil spill. Renee said they hope more people will take part in such ceremonies to help heal the Earth. "We want to make people conscious of the power we have," Renee said. "We're the antenna and conductor." Greg Kahn/Staff

“We seem to be an exception to that,” Wert said.

Weekend events are helping to draw more visitors to the Naples area, including a televised beach volleyball competition.

In Lee County, hotels will be hopping this weekend, too. A check with nine hotels on Thursday found all but one of them full, with the other almost sold out, said Nancy Hamilton, director of communications for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

“It looks like we are above the curve and doing well, which we are happy about,” she said.

Another survey by AAA Auto Club South last weekend found that the oil spill hasn’t changed travelers’ plans to visit Florida’s Gulf Coast, but it could influence them in the future.

“The beaches are still beautiful and clean,” Brady said. “There are no tar balls on the beach.”

In Southwest Florida, there have been few cancellations as a result of the spill.

“So far it has been mostly phone calls, asking ‘Are you affected yet?’” Wert said.

In Lee County, 10 cancellations have been reported as a result of the oil spill, Hamilton said. “Of those, it’s a little over $8,000 worth of business. It’s for reservations that were in May, June, July and August.”

Julie Cambre, top, who owns property near the beach, checks on the oil spill in Grand Isle, La., Thursday, May 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Julie Cambre, top, who owns property near the beach, checks on the oil spill in Grand Isle, La., Thursday, May 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

With so many travelers on the road this weekend, AAA Auto Club South is offering free “Tow to Go” rides to drivers who have had too much to drink through Monday. The phone number to call is 1-800-AAA-HELP.

Most of the tourists headed this way are expected to come from Florida’s east coast. Many will be families with children.

Sunstream Hotels & Resorts, which has seven hotels and resorts in Lee and Collier counties, saw a dramatic increase in bookings this week. At first, reservations were running behind last year, but now it looks like all of its properties will sell out, said Jennifer Seaborn, director of sales and marketing. That will fill close to 700 rooms.

Through a “Free Florida” promotion Sunstream is offering one night free after a two-night stay. Rates are about the same as last year, Seaborn said.

Sunstream’s properties include the Bellasera Resort in downtown Naples and the DiamondHead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach.

Sunstream hasn’t lost much business because of the oil spill. The company has changed its cancellation policies to encourage people to keep their plans. Any fees or penalties will be waived if its properties are affected in any way in the future, Seaborn said.

The Naples Grande Beach Resort off Seagate Drive sold out about a week ago, said Jillian Merschat, marketing and communications manager. The resort has 474 rooms.

A woman shades herself and dog from the summer heat on Bonita's dog beach this Thursday. Kera Holzinger/Special to the Daily news.

Photo by KERA HOLZINGER // Buy this photo

A woman shades herself and dog from the summer heat on Bonita's dog beach this Thursday. Kera Holzinger/Special to the Daily news.

“The holidays are always a busy time for us,” Merschat said. “We are substantially over what we were last year.”

Rates are about the same as last year. The resort has planned more activities this year for families. Offerings include a fish fry cookout, tie-dying for kids, a movie night, cookie decorating and a sand castle building contest.

The Naples Grande has seen no cancellations because of the oil spill, Merschat said.

With gas prices falling earlier in the week and expected to remain in the $2.70 to $2.80 range for regular unleaded this weekend, more Floridians could hit the road at the last minute. That could bring even more visitors to this region, though it will be more of a challenge for them to find a room with so many already taken.

“Hotel rates are actually pretty good right now,” said Brady with AAA Auto Club South.

AAA’s predictions for holiday travel are based on people who are going 50 or more miles from their home.

Randy Smith, the owner of Naples Transportation, Tours and Event Planning, expects a good weekend. His company runs Segway, trolley and Everglades tours, which attract locals and visitors.

Psychologically, lower gas prices can help encourage travel, even if they don’t save drivers that much money in the end, Smith said.

“I think people are ready to go out and start traveling again and having some fun,” he said. “All three of our tours should be pretty busy.”

__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

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