Spring Break boosts tourism

Spring Break and Easter look set to give a double flip to Cayman’s tourism industry.

Trina Christian of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association explained that because the two holidays are spread out this year, it would have a positive effect on tourism. Spring break is from around 14 to 18 March, with Easter Sunday on 24 April.

“Condos benefit because college kids come down and use the family condo. It’s a different demographic than other destinations would see with the all-inclusive resort type of thing and we are quite lucky because their ability to spend on services like restaurants and going out is typically a bit higher than it would be in other Spring Break markets. Throughout the rest of the year we tend to attract a different clientele like families and couples and the parents are still largely involved in sending their kids down here whilst other destinations they often go on their own.

“March is generally one of our strongest months and with Easter later in April we benefit from both whereas when they are in the same month it is obviously strong but then there is a weaker month. We have a positive outlook on March and April and are focusing on what we can do to boost May and June which tend to be softer months for the industry,” said Ms Christian.

Bars and restaurants are also looking forward to an increase in numbers, explained Joann Calma, general manager of Breezes by the Bay.

“Spring Break picks up a lot for us with college kids and as a whole tourism picks up generally on the positive side. There’s always a huge number of families and young groups.

“We are obviously more aware of under age drinking and we are pretty strict on not allowing liquor out onto the street and [ID] carding people,” she revealed.

It is a different clientele, explained Paul Robinson, Marketing Director of The Reef.“We do get Spring Breakers, but usually as part of a family unit. We find that many of our spring break younger guests enjoy time with their families. They come to cycle, run, and do water sports. They snorkel, go to Stingray City, and Scuba dive. They do things together and apparently, as many are repeat guests, like what the East End has to offer.”

“My guess is these are not the type of Spring Breakers you find at places like Carlos and Charlies in Cancun or Cozumel, shooting Tequilla out of those large carafs. These Spring Breakers are here to relax with their families and friends, and enjoy all that nature has bestowed on the Cayman Islands.”

Other Spring Break destinations are also getting busy.

T-shirts, beer cozies, thong bikinis and Mardi Gras beads fill the shelves at the Paradise Found store on Panama City Beach in Florida. The shop is hiring extra staff and will maintain extended hours through March and April.

“Now we are just waiting,” said store manager Dean Chon on a recent sunny afternoon as he folded T-shirts and tended the store’s only customers, a retired couple from the American Midwest.

Businesses up and down this strip of turquoise Gulf waters and white-sand beach are anxiously waiting, hoping and counting on thousands of teens and twenty-somethings to arrive en masse.

A strong spring break will be an important sign the area has moved past last year’s BP oil spill, which brought some tar balls and oil-covered debris from the blown-out rig to the once-pristine beach in northwestern Florida.

A weak spring break would be another tough hit for the beach that had high hopes for 2010 with the opening of a new, international airport before the spill ruined summer tourism along a 200-mile swath of the Florida Panhandle.

“Spring break kicks off the whole summer travel season,” said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “This March is especially important because it is our first big tourism month since they finally killed the Deepwater Horizon,” the well off Louisiana responsible for it all.

Rowe and his staff have made the rounds of colleges in the Midwest, distributing gift cards and promoting convenient flights to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.

They have visited the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin, among other Midwestern campuses.

They next plan to visit schools in Georgia and Tennessee with later spring break dates.

In the meantime, the Florida economy has been buoyed by a steady flow of retirees seeking a break from the brutal northern winter. Panama City Beach saw an 8 per cent increase in its tourism development tax collections in December over the corresponding month in 2009, Rowe said.

The city is offering winter resident appreciation days to lure more of the northern snowbirds, while making the transition to spring with an aggressive online campaign to let college students know that the weather is good and the beach is clean. Businesses are offering deals on the Panama City Beach website for visitors with student IDs on everything from airboat tours and limousine rides to hot wings.

The message, Rowe said, is that the beach has moved past the oil spill and is ready for tourists.

“We never got any of the really big nasty stuff that they got in some of the areas, just some tar balls here and there, and the amount of product they’ve been able to pick up has gone down dramatically in the last several months. The recovery is telling the world that Panama City Beach is here, and that it is back to normal,” Rowe said.

The marketing blitz appears to be paying off. Southwest Airlines said its flights into Panama City are full the weekends of March 11 and 19. Travel companies generally are reporting solid bookings.

Ticket sales on Expedia.com to Panama City Beach for March are up by 156 per cent compared with last year, said Devon Nagle, an Expedia spokesman. “Bookings for April are up as well,” he said, but still too early to give definitive results.

Expedia was offering package deals on flights and a five-night hotel stay in Panama City from locations including Chicago, Illinois, Dallas, Texas, and New York City. Prices on Thursday ranged from $871 to $1,502 per person.

Panama City ranked 45th among Orbitz.com’s spring break destinations in 2010 and fell slightly to 51st this year, said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor for Orbitz.

The top 20 destinations booked on the travel website for spring break are Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Cancun, Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and Tampa, Florida; New York, Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

Minnesota-based Travel Leaders, a leading travel company, said Panama City was not among its top destinations for 2011 in a recent survey. But the survey of the company’s agents found that 62 per cent said 2011 bookings to the Gulf Coast were the same as or higher than 2010, a positive sign for post-spill tourism, she said.

Mack Carter and his family have operated Shuckums Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill on Panama City Beach for more than 30 years. Last year was the toughest because of the oil spill.

“We hope the spring break crowd will come back. We have plenty of good, fresh Apalachicola oysters that were not affected by the oil,” he said.

As his employees poured buckets of raw oysters into ice containers at the edge of a long bar, Carter said spring break 2011 is important for the local economy and for morale.

“We hope we will fill up this whole restaurant,” he said. “I’m anticipating large crowds and lots of good, clean fun.”

Daniel Estaffa’s friends opened the Hook’d Bar and Grill that he manages on July 23, in the middle of the oil spill disaster. Estaffa has had mostly quiet days so far at the beach-front grill, which sits at the entrance of the beach’s main fishing pier.

He has heard stories about wild spring break crowds on Panama City Beach in the past, but he is not sure what to expect this year.

“We are more family oriented but we are not opposed to spring break dollars,” Estaffa said while pouring a beer for a retiree at the end of his bar. “All dollars are vital for us because most restaurants fold in their first year.”

Hotel desk clerk Matthew Flesh is a spring break veteran. He works at the beach-front Ambassador Hotel.

Flesh rattled off various colleges and their spring break dates between taking reservation calls on a recent afternoon. So far, the season is looking good.

“It’s been very busy,” he said. “I’m getting calls from all over the East Coast, and we are pretty much full.”