Locals better get ready for large crowds, long waits and traffic backups.
Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kickoff for the summer tourist season, and expectations are high that this will be the busiest Memorial Day ever in Northwest Florida.
“We are meeting our expectations and we’re up over last year,” said Laurie Hobbs, marketing director for the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to come close to selling out at least one day out of the holiday weekend. With us having more than 1,200 units, everything from hotel rooms to four-bedroom villas, that’s pretty exciting.
“We’re seeing very strong occupancy from Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Hobbs added.
Reservations already are up slightly compared to last year, but Hobbs said the resort will have to wait until after the holiday to know by how much it exceeded 2012.
In addition to the leisure demand, Hobbs said reservations have been strong from associations and corporate groups.
Dan O’Byrne, tourist development director for Okaloosa County, said several lodging properties he’s heard from are sold out. The TDC has updated its website to offer special rates to help fill vacancies that still remain at some properties.
In Santa Rosa County, bed tax collections are up 7 percent for the first four months of this year compared to the same period in 2102. Tourist Development Council director Kate Wilkes said she expects that to continue through the summer season.
“I anticipate a good summer without any hurricanes,” Wilkes said. “I’m just hearing positive things. I usually hear if things are bad, and I’m not hearing that. One (bed tax collector) said she just needs more inventory.”
Although local tourism professionals expect this to be the busiest Memorial Day weekend on record, AAA Auto Club projects 34.8 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home. If accurate, that would be 0.9 percent less than last year.
“We are seeing a little bit of a decline this year,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA. “The economy has been seeing some up and down growth, sequestration continues causing uncertainty and that makes job growth relatively slow.”
Although AAA projects a slight decline in travelers, Jenkins said the results of a recent survey it conducted indicated a 5 percent increase in overall summer travel.
“Where things could be off to a relatively stable start, they should pick up as the summer progresses,” he said.
Northwest Florida is the second most popular drive-to destination in Florida, but the Memorial Day holiday also has greatly increased traffic at the Northwest Florida Regional Airport.
Tracy Stage, deputy director of the airport, said business is up from past years.
“We’re having loads as high as 95-plus percent on our carriers, especially on Monday for everybody trying to return back to work for Tuesday,” Stage said. “These weekends are great for our airport system and the economy. All of our tenants and concessionaires do very well. It’s definitely welcomed for our system.”