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Tourism suffers in Florida due to hurricanes


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Tourism suffers in hurricane-ravaged Florida


Friday, September 24, 2004 Posted: 5:21 AM EDT (0921 GMT)


Hurricane Ivan destroyed the road to Florida's Navarre Beach.



COCOA BEACH, Florida (AP) -- Bill and Carol Tharp grasped each other for support as five-foot waves crashed against them in the surf off this Atlantic Coast beach made famous by NASA astronauts and the 1960s television show "I Dream of Jeannie."


They were the only tourists in sight along a seemingly endless stretch of sand which only two weeks earlier was battered by Hurricane Frances. They started their vacation this week, just days after Hurricane Ivan tore up Florida's Panhandle and more than a month after Hurricane Charley plowed through the state.


The back-to-back-to-back hurricanes have pummeled expensive oceanfront resorts, eroding sandy beaches and damaging some hotels. A fourth hurricane, Jeanne, is threatening to hit over the weekend. The economic effect of the hurricanes on the state's tourism has yet to be calculated, but it could be in the billions of dollars.


"Everybody told us 'Don't go to Florida!"' said Carol Tharp, 50, a counselor from Cookeville, Tennessee. "But we're here and we're enjoying it."


Only a hundred yards from where the Tharps frolicked in the water, though, was the Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach, temporarily closed because of water damage from Frances and a testament to the biggest crisis to hit Florida's $51 billion tourism industry since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused a 20 percent drop in Florida tourism.


A 1 percent loss in annual market share for the state equals a loss of $5.4 billion in tourism-related spending. Tourism is the state's largest industry, accounting for almost a tenth of Florida's $500 billion economy. Florida ranks only behind California as the nation's top tourism destination.


Hotel occupancy rates in two of Florida's largest markets, Miami and Tampa, were down 22 percent last week compared to the same time last year, according to Smith Travel Research. Both markets suffered only minor damage from the hurricanes.


"We are very concerned about the image that Florida has gotten because Florida has gotten so much negative publicity over the last 45 days," said Tom Waits, president and CEO of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association.


The Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach, which housed the Mercury 7 astronauts in the early 1960s, had roofs partially ripped off of three beachside buildings by Frances. All 502 rooms sustained some water damage, causing $3 million to $4 million in repairs. The hotel will be closed until early next month.


The hotel "has been here since 1962 and she has experienced quite a lot, but this is the hardest hit she has ever taken," said general manager Shay Baranowski.


Along the Atlantic Coast, thousands of the state's 400,000 hotel rooms have been closed for weeks since Frances blew through. Most of the damage is cosmetic rather than structural, but many hotels may not reopen until the end of the year when the busy Christmas season starts.


The 118 rooms at the Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront along Florida's Space Coast were soaked by Frances, requiring drywall and carpets to be replaced and causing several million dollars in damage and lost business.


The hotel restaurant's ceiling was destroyed, requiring seating booths, industrial refrigerators and shelves of canned olives and beans to be temporarily relocated in a carpeted ballroom. Clear plastic tubes, one-foot in diameter, snake along the ceiling of the hotel's first floor blowing hot air into water-damaged rooms.


The Breakers, the aristocratic 108-year-old resort in Palm Beach, closed for three weeks after Frances because of roof and water damage. The equally posh Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, also closed but hasn't set a date to reopen.


In southwest Florida's Charlotte County, which felt the brunt of Hurricane Charley's Category 4 winds last month, about a third of the 3,300 hotel rooms were damaged at a cost of millions of dollars. Hundreds of hotel workers are without jobs in this county where tourism accounts for more than a tenth of the 57,000 job market.


Tourism has ground to a complete halt in the Pensacola area where the main attraction -- the area's beaches -- have been made almost inaccessible by Ivan. Many of the roads leading to the beaches are covered by 10 feet of sand and won't be reopened for weeks. Many beachside condominiums and hotels were blown away by the hurricane and many of those that remain are lacking electricity, water and operational sewers.


Throughout the state, tourism officials are busy rebuilding Florida's image as a vacation hotspot.


"We need to let people know we're up and operational," said Bob Warren, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.





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