Increase projected in holiday travel in Collier, Lee, throughout Florida

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Members of the Nicklas family greet their fellow family members as they arrive for Christmas at Southwest Regional Airport in Fort Myers on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012.

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Scott McIntyre/Staff Members of the Nicklas family greet their fellow family members as they arrive for Christmas at Southwest Regional Airport in Fort Myers on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012.

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— Southwest Florida hotels and resorts are quickly filling up for the holidays, boosting the local economy and offering an additional sign that a strong tourist season is under way.

"Although the country is going through some interesting dynamics, the Naples destination continues to prove to be not only a luxury destination but a destination that people trust and value," said Bruce Seigel, director of sales and marketing for The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples.

Apart from a double-digit increase over last year in occupancy of the 750 rooms at both Ritz-Carltons in Naples, Seigel said there's a trend this year of guests staying longer — perhaps because Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Tuesdays.

"It's starting us off to a wonderful season," he said.

Across the region, area hoteliers expect a better holiday than 2011, while Southwest Florida International Airport is ready for an increase of passengers and AAA predicts a 1.6 percent increase of travelers during the year-end holidays compared with last year.

Carmel O'Donoghue, a senior citizen from Limerick, Ireland, sat on a beach chair Sunday on Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples with her son, Mike, a Detroit automotive sales manager, lounging and watching others swim, surf and ride watercraft.

"It's quite nice now, but it has been chilly these past few days," Carmel O'Donoghue said, after temperatures rose from a brisk 57 degrees in the morning to 72 degrees that afternoon. "It's warming up. We're enjoying it. It's better than the rain we have in Ireland."

Josh Patry, 22, an employee at Cabana Dan's Beach Amenity Service, said crowds, many from Chicago, packed the beach Thursday, making it barely walkable, but they had thinned to less than half that Sunday.

"People make plans in the morning, so they're not going out today," Patry said of the frigid Sunday morning temperature.

The local visitors were among the 93.3 million Americans who AAA estimates will travel 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holidays, up from the 91.8 million last year. An estimated 84.4 million Americans will travel by car, while 5.6 million will travel by air, and about 3.3 million by other modes of transportation.Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Travel in Tampa, said the increase in travel overall is nearing the pre-recession numbers of 2006.

In Florida, 4.8 million residents are expected to take a trip this year-end holiday, with 4.3 million residents hitting the road in their cars during the year-end holiday season, an increase of 1.3 percent from a year ago, while 267,514 are expected to travel by air, a projected increase of 4.2 percent from last year. Nearly 194,356 Floridians, or an increase of 4 percent, are expected to travel during the year-end holiday by other modes of transportation, such as buses and trains, according to AAA.

AAA bases its forecast on a national survey by IHS Global Insight.

Declining gas prices will benefit those driving.

Gasbuddy.com senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan estimated that the national average will be $3.19 per gallon on Christmas, about 5 cents less than last year. The estimated average gasoline price in Naples is $3.37 per gallon on Christmas, a decrease from $3.42 per gallon last Christmas, according to gasbuddy.com.

Gasbuddy.com senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan estimated that the national average will be $3.19 per gallon on Christmas, about 5 cents less than last year. The estimated average gasoline price in Naples is $3.37 per gallon on Christmas, a decrease from $3.42 per gallon last Christmas, according to gasbuddy.com.

Many hotels, such as Ritz-Carltons, have seen steady advance booking.

Between the Fortune 100 companies booking rooms and leisure guests, Seigel said the forecast for the entire tourist season is outstanding.

"We are blessed here, with a destination that continues to give the customer a generational visit," he said.

Collier County tourism officials reported 15 percent more visitors in December 2011 compared with 2010. Occupancy in lodging was up 11 percent in December of last year, compared with 2010.

Jack Wert, Collier's tourism director, said the trend should continue in Collier with an increase of between 8 and 10 percent in visitors for the area this month.

Jack Wert

Jack Wert

"We definitely see an uptick between Christmas and New Year's," Wert said.

The first two weeks of January are traditionally slower in Collier County.

"Our busy season really should start picking up the second week of January," said Wert, anticipating high seasonal occupancy levels well into May.

As of late last week, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort was nearly sold out for Christmas week, said Robert Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing at the Marco resort.

The total room capacity of 727 is expected to be 95 percent full during the Christmas week. From Dec. 15 to Dec. 31, the hotel reported an about 12 percent increase in rooms booked compared to last year.

"As we get closer to the week, we are projecting sellouts," he said.

In Estero, at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa, the 454-room hotel also is filling up.

David Gauthier, Hyatt's director of sales and marketing, said the resort is almost sold out between Christmas and New Year's Day. This year, Gauthier said guests made reservations a lot sooner, compared to prior years.

"We expect a very strong first quarter as well," Gauthier said.

Southwest Florida International Airport flights are expected to be full through the weekend, Christmas week and going into the weekend after New Year's.

Carriers and airport staff are prepared, RSW spokeswoman Victoria Moreland said.

"We anticipate no problems," Moreland said.

The airport expects about 250 flights per day this holiday period, she said.

The airport adds extra cleaning staff and extra workers to run more shuttles from the long-term parking lot during the holiday season.

Airport officials expected this weekend to be the busiest days — both inbound and outbound — and again the following weekends: Dec. 28-30 and Jan. 4-6.

Passengers should plan to arrive a minimum of two hours before their domestic flight's departure and a minimum of three hours before their international flight, check airline travel requirements for baggage and visit the TSA.gov website, Moreland said.

__ Staff Writer Aisling Swift contributed to this report.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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