|By Kevin Wadlow, Florida Keys Keynoter,
MarathonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 30, 2009--Many visitors crowding the Keys this week share a common sentiment: They wanted to go where it's warm.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," said James Batten of Virginia Beach, Va., stopping in Key Largo Monday on the way to Key West. "It was in the 30s at home and we had the week off. So why not?"
Christmas came a few days early for the Keys tourism industry in 2009, when a normally busy holiday week turned unexpectedly hectic.
"The week between Christmas and New Year's is always the busiest week of the year here, and this year it certainly is," said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. "Just eyeballing the sidewalks, you can see it's extremely busy."
All the signs are there, from full Conch Trains in Key West to passengers streaming off a glass-bottom boat just back from viewing the Key Largo reefs.
Routine openings of the Snake Creek Bridge -- the only drawspan still operating on U.S. 1 in the Keys -- caused southbound traffic backups for miles on Plantation Key.
"In the last 10 days, we've had several days with more than 500 people" walking into the Florida Keys Visitor Center at mile marker 106, said Jackie Harder, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, "which is phenomenal."
Visitor counts at the chamber's welcome center are "20 to 25 percent above the 2008 numbers, even in a down economy," Harder said. "The restaurant people I've seen say things are jamming."
The aircraft parking ramp at the Marathon Jet Center at Florida Keys Marathon Airport is wing to wing with "20-something jets," company partner Leslie Coles said Tuesday. "And we've got more coming in."
"I think it got cold up north, and people got tired of sitting at home," Coles said.
Harold Wheeler, executive director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, agreed. "It's the cold weather up north and the lower [room] rates here."
With the days before Christmas normally a slow period in the Keys, Wheeler said, many hotels and resorts lowered their December rates at the end of an economically grim 2009.
"The rates dropped and people picked up on it," Wheeler said. "That's the nice thing about the Keys. People can pack their bags and drive down."
Nicole Twyford watched children Jessica, 6, and James, 5, explore a diving helmet on display at the Key Largo center Monday.
"We had to escape to someplace warm," said Twyford, an Australia native now living in Texas. "We've been driving all day and we're beat."
Jane McElduff was looking for a place where her three-family group of 17 people from the Beacon, N.Y., area could camp in the Upper Keys. With nearby state parks booked, options were few.
"We think of reasons to pick up and go to random places," McElduff said. "The cheapest flight we could find was to Orlando, and we came on down."
Atlanta residents Todd Prydybasz and Stacy Harper, married on Key West's Smathers Beach two years ago, returned for the first time this week. They loaded up two kayaks and hitched their teardrop camper to their Jeep.
"I made the reservation at Bahia Honda [State Park] a year ago," Prydybasz said.
At midweek, there still was a smattering of rooms available for late-comers -- but they were not expected to remain vacant long.
Eleven of the 38 Upper Keys resorts on the Key Largo chamber's survey were booked for New Year's Eve. "The rates are lower, ranging from $75 to $299," Harder said. "That's unheard of, so they probably won't last."
"Some [hotels] are definitely sold out but some others still have a few rooms for New Year's," Panico said Tuesday from Key West. "When the walk-ins get here, that will be different."
Amir and Elvedina Busnov headed back to Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday after a 10-day visit that ranged from Key West to Key Largo.
"There's such a wealth of history here," Amir said. "I've wanted to see the Hemingway House for a long time. The Keys are an amazing place."
"We don't want to go home," Elvedina said with a wistful smile.
Tourism studies show that when transportation costs go up, travelers cut down on entertainment and shopping, Harder said.
"But Americans really love to take their holidays," she said. "They may not go to Bermuda, but they'll be willing to get in the car and come down here."
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