PHOTOS Labor Day tourism for Collier, Lee relies heavily on Florida travelers

Nico Lasslop, 10, from Germany, leaps through a waterfall in one of the numerous pools at the Hyatt at Coconut Point in Estero on Sept. 3, 2010. The Hyatt is expecting about 700 guests to arrive between late Friday and Saturday for the Labor Day holiday. Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo

Nico Lasslop, 10, from Germany, leaps through a waterfall in one of the numerous pools at the Hyatt at Coconut Point in Estero on Sept. 3, 2010. The Hyatt is expecting about 700 guests to arrive between late Friday and Saturday for the Labor Day holiday. Greg Kahn/Staff

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— The coast is clear.

It has been in Southwest Florida, with no oil ever reaching the local beaches from BP’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet, hoteliers in Southwest Florida continue to struggle, plagued by false impressions of dirty water and oily beaches. The long holiday weekend, however, will fill up some local hotels and resorts, with many visitors planning to come from Florida’s east coast, where there’s a better understanding of where the oil went and where it didn’t.

“For Labor Day, the outlook is very good. The beach properties are getting close to filled, or we believe they will be filled out. They are telling us that bookings are strong,” said Nancy Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, earlier this week.

The bureau’s ongoing surveys of people in the eastern U.S. show 7 percent still believe there is oil on the beaches in Southwest Florida.

“It’s remaining steady,” Hamilton said.

The county has seen a drop in bed tax revenues since the spill. The tax is collected on all hotel stays and other short-term rentals.

In April, Lee County’s bed tax collections were down nearly 30 percent, when compared to a year ago. They were down another 26 percent in May, making the oil spill’s effects clearer. Collections started to rise again in June.

“We are looking at making a claim for lost bed tax,” Hamilton said. “And we are in the process of gathering information at this point, looking at all the statistics and seeing what the requirements are to file, and what all we have to provide – what information.”

In Collier County in July, visitor numbers dropped 2.4 percent to 102,000, down from 104,500 a year ago. There were more empty rooms in July, with the number of room nights booked down 4.6 percent. Direct spending by tourists shrank nearly 2 percent to about $47.8 million.

Collier County may make a claim for lost bed taxes, too. In July, visitor numbers in the county dropped 2.4 percent to 102,000, down from 104,500 a year ago.

There were more empty rooms in July, with the number of room nights booked down 4.6 percent. Direct spending by tourists shrank nearly 2 percent to about $47.8 million.

“There is still a lot of caution out there and still a lot of misinformation,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think the water quality is what is bothering people now. They are just concerned whether there will be oil in the water. And boy is that the furthest thing from the case.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecast that Southwest Florida will remain free and clear from any oil, as long as the well remains capped.

“We continue to try to get that message out,” Wert said. “It’s still difficult.”

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Despite the dip in tourism in July, bed taxes increased in Collier County over the same month last year, but that may be because there’s been a push to get violators to pay the tax. The county collected $669,368, compared to $639,464 in July of last year.

A bad economy is still a factor that’s keeping visitors away, but not as much as it was a year ago, Wert said.

In the state, AAA predicted that Labor Day travel would be up 3.9 percent this year, with more than 1.6 million Floridians taking a trip 50 miles or more away from home. In the U.S., travel was projected to increase 7.7 percent from last year.

Most will travel by car this weekend. The average price of regular gas in Florida is expected to be between $2.65 and $2.75 a gallon.

For those planning a driving trip within Florida, a report by the National Motorists Association lists Boca Raton and Jacksonville as the top two “speed trap” cities in the state.

AAA Auto Club South and Budweiser have teamed up to offer a free “Tow to Go” program in Florida, Georgia and parts of Tennessee. Drivers who have had too much to drink can get a confidential ride and tow home from any bar or restaurant by calling 1-800-AAA-HELP.

For many, Labor Day weekend is a chance to take that final summer trip before the school year kicks into high gear.

“The high unemployment rate and the not-so-great housing market are definitely having an impact on the Florida numbers, on Floridians traveling,” said Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa. “However, there is still an increase. An increase is an increase. It’s a positive sign that we are seeing more people deciding to travel.”

She said many Floridians will flock to theme parks this weekend in Orlando, especially Universal’s Islands of Adventure, where the new Harry Potter exhibit recently opened.

Beach-front hotels in Collier County are optimistic about the Labor Day weekend.

“They do seem to fill up first,” Wert said.

Inland hotels, especially, have been seeing more last-minute bookings and more walk-ins. So it’s more difficult for them to know how busy they’ll be this weekend.

“It’s been a tough summer,” Wert said.

At the Hampton Inn in Bonita Springs, Ruth Oberholtzer, the general manager, is staying positive, though she knows her 92-room hotel won’t be full this weekend.

“You know what? We can dream. It’s not going to happen, but we are not going to focus on the negatives,” she said.

“We have a sunny outlook over here,” Oberholtzer said. “We spoil our guests.”

Much of her business comes from corporate meetings – about 60 percent.

“It’s definitely not a corporate holiday, unless they are mixing business with pleasure,” Oberholtzer said.

Much of her business is last minute.

“They figure out a way, or something happens and they can come, and they do,” she said. “It’s very different, but we’re flexible.”

At the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Estero, Joe Thompson, director of sales, said summer was really good because of group business. He said the fact that the resort isn’t directly on the Gulf probably helped minimize any harm from the oil spill.

For the Labor Day weekend, he expects to see many families at his 454-room resort, with most coming from Florida’s east coast.

“We are going to be close to sold out,” he said. “But I don’t know if we’re going to make it.”

“Labor Day, because school has already started, it’s usually a little softer,” Thompson noted. “Our rates are slightly higher than last year.”

Guests traveling for leisure are increasingly booking the same week they are arriving, Thompson said.

At some hotels, business has picked up noticeably since BP capped its oil-gushing well. Steve McIntyre, general manager at the Bellasera Hotel in downtown Naples, said his business suddenly dropped off in July, but began to improve near the end of the month.

But he’s not sure what to expect this weekend.

“Labor Day weekend, in particular, we are pacing far behind last year,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are going to have to wait and see what happens.”

“Labor Day is not the big go-away weekend. It’s more of a stay at home weekend,” said Steve McIntyre, general manager at the Bellasera Hotel in downtown Naples.

The hotel is offering discounts, including a third night free, to try to lure more guests this weekend.

“Labor Day is not the big go-away weekend. It’s more of a stay at home weekend,” McIntyre said.

At the condo hotel, about 15 owners are pursuing BP claims for lost money, he said.

“Labor Day weekend is going to be a success for the Marco Island Marriott Resort,” said Bob Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing, in an e-mail. “We will sell out over the weekend at the same rates we offered in 2009.”

The oil spill hurt the resort this summer. Since the well was capped there has been an uptick in business, but the pace of bookings is still lagging behind last year, Pfeffer said.

“The misperception is still alive that all of Florida has oil on their beaches,” he said.

“We are in the process of submitting our claim to BP,” he added. “We are expecting to be paid.”

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

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