Outlook is brighter for Christmas tourism, travel in region than in recent years - POLL

Tristan Spinski/Staff
Dylan Horwitz, center, 8, of Fairfield, Conn., sprints away from her parents, Rick and Stephanie Horwitz, not pictured, and into the arms of her grandparents, Gwen Asher, left, and Ken Asher, back, of Fort Myers, at Southwest Florida International Airport on Thursday afternoon. 'They always run to greet us,' Gwen Asher said about her grandchildren as they arrived at the airport. While travel experts expect large crowds this holiday season, overall holiday air travel, both locally and nationally, is expected to drop compared to previous years because of higher ticket prices, fewer flights and reduced seating capacities.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Tristan Spinski/Staff Dylan Horwitz, center, 8, of Fairfield, Conn., sprints away from her parents, Rick and Stephanie Horwitz, not pictured, and into the arms of her grandparents, Gwen Asher, left, and Ken Asher, back, of Fort Myers, at Southwest Florida International Airport on Thursday afternoon. "They always run to greet us," Gwen Asher said about her grandchildren as they arrived at the airport. While travel experts expect large crowds this holiday season, overall holiday air travel, both locally and nationally, is expected to drop compared to previous years because of higher ticket prices, fewer flights and reduced seating capacities.

Here are a few tips if you’re flying out of Southwest Florida International for the holidays:

1) Arrive early, two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight.

2) Know your airline’s travel policies before you arrive at the airport, such as what you can take on the plane and the fees you’ll be charged for baggage.

3) Go to TSA.gov to get other helpful information about getting through airport security checkpoints.

4) Check the airline’s website to see if your flights are running on time.

Source: Victoria Moreland, with Southwest Florida International Airport.

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— Hotels will be stuffed like stockings for the holidays, with more visitors expected this year.

"Looks like the holiday season will be busy ... and all indications are the whole first quarter of next year should definitely be above where we were a year ago," said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director.

Visitors are making their reservations more in advance, a sign of more confidence in the economy.

In Collier, visitation has been on the rise year-over-year since February. Through November, it was up 7.1 percent for the year.

The county has seen nearly 1.37 million visitors since January.

With tourism looking up, hiring is stronger for the busy winter season.

"Our statistics indicate that for every 45 additional visitors we attract, that does support an additional tourism job," Wert said. "As visitation goes up, job creation should also happen."

Across the country, nearly 92 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home for the Christmas-New Year's holidays – up 1.4 percent from last year. This year's forecast is the second highest in the past decade.

In Florida, nearly 4.8 million residents plan to get away for the year-end holidays, up 1.2 percent from last year. Most are expected to go by car.

"We think pent-up demand is one factor that is coming into play," said Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa. "Reduced gas prices are another factor that is probably making it more affordable for more families to travel."

The growth in the country's gross domestic product, or GDP, is also giving Americans more confidence in the economy, which encourages more travel.

In AAA's survey, 67 percent of the people planning to leave home for the holidays said the economy wasn't affecting their travel plans. Still, 41 percent said they were scaling back their travel plans because of economic concerns.

"People are still being frugal," Brady said.

Frugal means fewer Americans will travel by air for the holidays. Air travel is expected to be down nearly 10 percent nationwide and drop by 11 percent in Florida. That's blamed primarily on rising jet fuel costs, which have pushed up the cost of flights, and on capacity cuts that mean fewer seats are available.

"Air fares are 21 percent higher than a year ago," Brady said.

More people are traveling by train, bus and boat this holiday season.

Fewer people are expected to get on a plane for the holidays, but it still will be a busy time at Southwest Florida International Airport. Passenger traffic has been on the decline at the airport during the past few months.

"Although there has been a slight downturn, we fully anticipate we will have a good season. We are going to make sure we maintain all our costs," said Victoria Moreland, a spokeswoman for the airport.

She's optimistic about the winter season based on what she's hearing from hoteliers, who expect higher occupancies than last year over the next few months because of more advanced bookings.

Fewer Americans will travel by air for the holidays. Air travel is expected to be down nearly 10 percent nationwide and drop by 11 percent in Florida. That's blamed primarily on rising jet fuel costs, which have pushed up the cost of flights, and on capacity cuts that mean fewer seats are available.

Steve McIntire, general manager for Park Shore Resort off Neapolitan Way in Naples, said the resort and its sister properties, including the Bellasera Hotel near Fifth Avenue South in downtown Naples, expect a good start to the new year.

"The first quarter is looking strong, February in particular," McIntire said. "Bookings are way ahead of last year."

This time of year, most visitors come from the Midwestern and Northeastern U.S. and are looking to escape the cold. Some come from Europe.

"We are getting new faces, but most of them are repeats," McIntire said.

Some hotels and resorts in Southwest Florida expect to sell out for the Christmas-New Year's holiday – or come close to it.

"We are having a fantastic holiday booking period, stronger than past years," said Scot Hamilton, director of sales and marketing for the LaPlaya Resort off Gulf Shore Drive.

He said bookings at the resort's Baleen restaurant for Christmas and New Year's Eve are running ahead of last year, too.

"I think the popularity of Naples in general is very strong," Hamilton said. "The resort as well is very popular."

Many of the resort's guests are repeats, too. LaPlaya, with 189 rooms, is close to selling out for the holidays.

Farther inland, the Hampton Inn Naples Central off U.S. 41, south of Pine Ridge Road, will fill more of its rooms for the holidays this year, said Dana Williams, the assistant general manager.

"Our occupancy is looking very nice for Christmas and especially the week after. We're almost sold out for the week after Christmas and leading up to the new year," she said.

Hilton, which owns the Hampton Inn brand, is running a special promotion to encourage more advanced bookings, which has helped, Williams said. Her hotel has a little more than 100 rooms.

"Our occupancy is looking very nice for Christmas and especially the week after. We're almost sold out for the week after Christmas and leading up to the new year," said Dana Williams of the Hampton Inn Naples Central.

In Lee County, visitation has been falling during the past few months, but bookings for the holidays look good, said Nancy Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. The rising cost of airline tickets and fewer flights are a growing challenge for area visitors, especially those who can't drive or don't want to drive. But Nancy Hamilton is encouraged by the recent addition of new service at Southwest Florida International, including seasonal nonstop flights to Hartford, Conn.

In October, Lee County's visitation was down 8.4 percent year-over-year, with fewer people staying with friends and relatives and at hotels or other vacation rentals

While visitation has dropped in Lee, tourist tax collection totals have been on the rise.

The county charges a 5 percent tax on hotel and other vacation stays and revenues from that tax topped $24.2 million last fiscal year – the most money ever collected.

"So actually the number of visitors has gone down slightly, but they are spending more and they are staying slightly longer," Nancy Hamilton said.

Hoteliers, she said, are seeing steady reservations for the rest of the winter season.

"People are coming. They want their vacation is what we are hearing and seeing," she said.

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

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