|By Todd Pack, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 2, 2004 - Central Florida's tourism economy, pummeled by three hurricanes in the past six weeks, will still be reeling from the storms for weeks to come. More travelers than usual have canceled reservations for October, and some hotels say there has been an unusually high number of cancellations for November.
But industry leaders said Friday it's still too soon to predict what effect the storms may have on travel during the next year's hurricane season.
One in five potential tourists surveyed after last weekend's storm said they're less likely to visit Florida by year's end. One in four is less likely to come between July and September 2005.
Twenty-two percent of those surveyed say they are less likely to visit Orlando during the entire 2005 hurricane season.
But no one in the industry thinks it will really be that bad.
"Clearly, travelers have been affected by both the jarring television images they have seen over the past six weeks as well as the duration of the coverage the hurricanes have generated," travel expert Peter Yesawich said. His Orlando-based travel marketing firm began its survey of 800 active leisure travelers two days after Hurricane Jeanne cut a swath across the peninsula.
Yesawich, chairman of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, said the number of people voicing interest in the state will improve in time, similar to how travel increased after 9-11 and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Florida's greatest problem now is its image, he said.
State officials have complained that the days of news coverage surrounding hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne have accidentally created the impression that the entire state is a wasteland.
Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said the Panhandle suffered "extreme damage" in the storms, but 31 percent also thought the Orlando area was devastated.
Many homes and businesses, including some hotels, were damaged by the storms, but the storms generally spared the attractions. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld closed for each storm but reopened the next morning.
Local tourism officials are trying to spread the word that Orlando is open for business.
Walt Disney World's Web site, for example, has a virtual postcard showing Mickey Mouse and Cinderella's Castle against a clear blue sky. On the postcard is the message, "The weather's great, wish you were here!"
Walt Disney World President Al Weiss has posted a letter on the resort's Web site, saying "I want to assure you that the Disney magic . . . most definitely weathered the storms."
Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, is launching a $1.5 million advertising and public relations campaign meant to assure potential visitors the state is safe to visit. Its slogan: "We're still here. Naturally."
Officials planned to launch the ad campaign a week ago, but they had to wait because of Jeanne.
Yesawich's findings echo the results of a recent survey by the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Before last weekend's storm, the bureau asked area hotels whether they had seen an increase in cancellations for September and October.
Of the 52 hotels responding to the bureau's Sept. 20 online poll, 81 percent reported more cancellations than usual last month while 47 percent had seen an increase for October.
"The further we get into the fall, things certainly level back out to more normal levels," said Kelly Repass, the bureau's director of research.
She said the bureau will survey hotels again to see whether more people have changed their travel plans because of Jeanne.
Coastal residents once again filled area hotels during the storm.
Orlando-area hotels saw a 27 percent increase in occupancy the week ended Sept. 25, a day before the storm, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks lodging trends.
On average, area hotels were about 67 percent full the week before the hurricane. Occupancy was 51.5 percent the same week a year ago. Rooms cost an average $85.28, up about 11 percent from the same week a year ago, reflecting a general increase in rates in the past year.
But three hurricanes in six weeks has taken a financial toll on smaller businesses.
"September is a slow month anyway, but when you don't open, it really hurts," said Fred Bailey, manager of Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf in Lake Buena Vista.
But like others whose income depends on tourists, Bailey said he's optimistic about next hurricane season. "You can't plan ahead a year in advance," he said.
"If we have no hurricanes or a very quiet hurricane season at the beginning of the season, people will forget about it," agreed Abraham Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen School of Hospitality Management.
Central Florida's economy would be devastated if one-fourth of late summer visitors stayed home, he said, but "I don't believe that will happen."
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