NAPLES — It's beginning to look a lot like summer.
Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer – and if the holiday weekend is a sign of what's to come, it should be a busier summer for the tourism industry in Southwest Florida this year.
Many hotels expect to fill up during the weekend.
"Our bookings are ahead of last year. All indications are that the town will be packed for Memorial Day weekend," said Phil McCabe, owner of the Inn on Fifth in downtown Naples.
Lower gas prices may fuel more tourism this weekend and through the summer. This time of year, more tourists are coming by car, often driving over from Florida's east coast.
In mid-April, the average price of regular unleaded gas was $3.95 a gallon in Florida and there were fears it would hit $4. On Wednesday, the average price was $3.52 and it could continue to drop throughout May and into June, according to AAA.
"It's really hard for us to speculate beyond that time. We really can't estimate how much they are going to decrease, but we do expect them to go down a bit or remain stable," said Angie LaPlant, a spokeswoman for AAA.
With the euro falling to a four-month low against the value of the dollar, it has reduced the appeal of crude oil as a commodity for foreign investors, which is pushing down prices, she said.
Also, fuel supplies are at a 20-year high in the U.S., with demand lagging, LaPlant said.
At the Inn on Fifth, McCabe expects a stronger holiday weekend for several reasons.
"The price of gas is going down. That is helping. The weather looks reasonably good. The economy has improved this year over last year, especially the east coast economy. Their economy is significantly improved over last year. So all that is contributing to a better Memorial Day weekend," he said.
Nationally, AAA projects 34.8 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Memorial Day weekend, up 1.2 percent from a year ago.
The increase in travel in the state and nationally is attributed mostly to an improving economic picture in the U.S.
"The outlook is looking better for people. They do have a little bit more disposable income to travel," LaPlant said.
Most travelers won't hop on a plane. Nationally, more than 2.5 million people will fly during the holiday weekend, down 5.5 percent from last year, according to AAA.
In Florida, 1.8 million are expected to travel this weekend in total, also up 1.2 percent from last year, based on AAA's annual survey. However, travel could be even stronger than projected in the state and nationwide because the survey was done more than a month ago when gas prices were much higher.
"We are thinking more people will be traveling, due to the fact that gas prices have stabilized. At the time of the survey, gas prices were still trending upward and there was a concern they would be hitting over $4 a gallon during this time," LaPlant said.
The lower gas prices certainly won't hurt, said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director. However, he said, they're less of a factor this time of year because many of the visitors who are coming are on a "one-tank" vacation since they're driving from other nearby cities and towns in Florida, anywhere from Tampa to Miami.
However, he said, lower gas prices free up more money for visitor spending on dining, shopping and entertainment.
Not everyone in the tourism industry expects to benefit from having more visitors in town this weekend.
Greg Allard, CEO of Southwest Florida Ecotours, said he's gotten some advanced bookings for his tours of the Everglades for the weekend, but they're not as strong as last year.
"Usually our busiest time of year is during season," he said.
The beach is a bigger draw for vacationers this time of year.
"This is one of our busier holiday weekends and the beach hotels are all reporting pretty close to full. The inland properties, they've got good advanced reservations and are anticipating a lot of last-minute arrivals," Wert said. "It should be a busy weekend for us."
McCabe expects his 87-room inn on Fifth Avenue South to sell out for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with most guests coming from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The Memorial Day weekend typically is busier than the Fourth of July or Labor Day holiday weekends, McCabe said.
Ruth Oberholtzer, general manager of the Hampton Inn near Bonita Beach Road, said the hotel couldn't be any busier than it was last year for the holiday weekend.
"We fill," she said. "You can't do more than fill."
This year, the 92-room inn has been busier than last, overall.
"I think Bonita Springs is getting to be a little more well-known," Oberholtzer said. "Each year we get a little more well-known. We are definitely making a name for ourselves. Obviously we've got a great beach down the street and a lot of restaurants down here. We're just a good place to be."
The inn is sold out for Saturday and Sunday, with a few rooms left on Friday. While many of its visitors this weekend will come from Florida's east coast, they'll also come from other states and even other countries.
The 454-room Hyatt Coconut Point Resort in Estero is sold out for Friday and Saturday, with a few rooms left on Sunday. It's benefiting from a large in-house convention."We're optimistic. June looks very good for us. Beyond that it's really hard to tell," said Joe Thompson, the resort's sales and marketing director.
In Collier County, Wert expects a busier summer based on the increases in tourism seen so far this year and more advanced reservations reported by tour operators abroad, especially in Germany and the United Kingdom.
Visitors won't just come to play this summer.
"Corporate meetings seem to be doing good — and association meetings," Wert said. "Often those meetings are held in the summer because rates are less."