COLLIER COUNTY — Higher gas prices haven’t taken the drive out of tourism in Collier County.
Visitors numbers have been on the rise for more than a year in the county, with an unusually strong January, despite a run-up in prices at the pump.
“Our typical visitor does have a higher median income and so gas price fluctuations are not as impactful to those folks as they might be to others. Perhaps other destinations might feel that, but we really haven’t,” said Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director.
In January, 167,000 visitors stayed in hotels and other vacation rentals in the county, up 3.1 percent from the same month a year ago. Those travelers spent $88.3 million in the destination, with a total economic impact of $131.7 million, up 8.2 percent over the year, according to a report by Walter Klages, a county consultant.
“The really very positive 2012 results carried over into January,” said Klages, president of Research Data Services Inc. in Tampa.
Usually, there’s a lull in the first few weeks of January, following the busy Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but that didn’t happen this year, he said.
In January, the typical visitor in Collier had a median household income of more than $150,000. That means half had a smaller income, but half had a larger one.
“We are dealing with a very upscale and well-to-do group of people, whose sensitivity to gas price variations of course exists, but is less pronounced,” Klages said. “They are much more price inelastic. It would take a significant spike before it would affect them.”
Nationally, average retail gas prices rose for 32 days straight, starting Jan. 20 at $3.265 a gallon and ending on Feb. 21 at $3.733 a gallon before the streak ended, according to GasBuddy.com.
Right now prices are pretty flat. That’s good news for consumers."
Gregg Laskoski, of GasBuddy
“Right now prices are pretty flat. That’s good news for consumers,” said Gregg Laskoski, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.
On Friday, the average gas price in Naples was almost $3.97 a gallon, up from about $3.87 a year ago, according to GasBuddy. On the same day, it was at less than $3.73 nationally, compared to about $3.69 a year ago.
“A lot of the visitors, in fact the majority of visitors this time of year, are arriving by air. So not as many people are driving from up North,” Wert said.
Despite rising fares and fuel surcharges, traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport rose 7.2 percent in January. There were 755,232 passengers, up from less than 705,000 a year ago.
“People are motivated by what they want. We are a free nation. If you can afford it and if you want to, you can get it. That is what market economies are all about. We have a choice,” Klages said.
The outlook is good for the rest of season, with nearly 90 percent of property managers in Collier saying in January that their reservations were the same or better than last year for the next three months. In the survey by Research Data Services, nearly 50 percent reported advance bookings were stronger for those months.
“We are only showing 3 percent of the managers who actually think it will be down,” Wert said. “So there is a lot of optimism there, a lot of positive.”
In Collier, tourism has been growing since October 2010, the month after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was permanently capped.
“After the oil well was capped, tourists started to come back and we have seen an increase over the previous year each month since,” Wert said.
In Collier, visitors booked nearly 2.3 million room nights in 2012, up 3.5 percent over the year, and their economic impact reached more than $1.4 billion, an 11.2 percent increase over 2011.
The county saw 1,573,000 visitors last year, up 5.6 percent from 2011. More than 580,000 of those visitors came from other parts of Florida.
A recent survey by AAA found 83 percent of Florida residents plan to travel this year. Three in five of those travelers, or 60 percent, plan to take two to three vacations of four days or more.
“We’re not seeing any impact on tourism as a result of gas prices,” said Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa.
“I think in some respects people expect that they are going to be paying higher prices for gasoline,” she said. “So they look to make accommodations, for ways to save on cruise rates, hotels and attractions. There are really great deals to be had.”
The AAA survey found that in the next three months alone, 76 percent of Floridians plan to take a vacation at least 50 miles from home and expect to spend up to $2,000 on their leisure trip. A beach trip ranks in the top five for the type of vacations they plan to take, which is what Naples offers.
While higher gas prices aren’t expected to slow tourism, if they shoot up again it could send seasonal residents, who plan to drive home, packing sooner. Or, those part-time residents could stay longer, in hopes that prices will fall before they hit the road.
Kristy Mitchaner, activities director at Rock Creek RV Resort and Campground off Airport-Pulling Road, near Naples Municipal Airport, said season got off to a slow start but she questions whether higher gas prices had anything to do with it.
January was slower than usual, but in February the park filled up, with 32 checks-ins on the first day of the month.
Easter traditionally has marked the end of the busy season in Southwest Florida. With the holiday falling in March this year, it could lead some seasonal residents to leave town sooner.
Lee Leatherwood, a broker for Premier Sotheby’s International Realty’s rental division, said it’s hard to figure out whether gas prices are affecting how long seasonal residents are here this year, but she knows it changes their mood.
“We have guests that can spend upwards of $40,000 on their rental if they are coming for three or four months,” she said. “That’s definitely not unheard of and that is just for their accommodations. Every little bit that they see that is costing them more just decreases their satisfaction.”
Many seasonal residents use car transport services so they can go the way of the birds and fly home, with their cars delivered to their doorstep before they get back.
It all depends on the weather up North...If it’s snowing ... they are staying.”
Dana Miller, sole owner of Young’s Auto Transport Inc. in Naples, said her clients usually go back at the same time every year, no matter when Easter falls.
She shipped out two truckloads of cars this week, or 18 of them.
“I have two weeks where it slows down,” she said. “Starting in April we will be shipping 30 and 35 a week,” Miller said.
Gregg Taylor, an owner/operator for snowbirdcarservice.com in New Jersey, said he’s noticed nothing unusual this year.
“It seems everybody is coming back at their normal times actually,” he said. “The snowbirds that we deal with, some of them are there until early June. April and May are very busy months for us.”
Wert, the county’s tourism director, said there’s something else that can persuade winter residents to stay longer, more than gas prices or the timing of Easter.
“It all depends on the weather up North,” he said. “It really does. If it’s snowing ... they are staying.”