|Gulf resorts post record for lodgings|
By Garry Mitchell
The Associated Press
GULF SHORES -- Alabama beach resorts posted record visitor spending on lodgings last year, bouncing back three years after Hurricane Ivan left widespread wreckage on the coast. Tourism officials hope high gas prices and a slide in the national economy won't reverse those gains. Next month heralds spring break and the kickoff of get-to-the-beach tourism. Gasoline prices likely will be a factor in the area's continued recovery. Last year, the average price for regular unleaded in Alabama was $2.05 at the end of January, soaring to $3.08 on Memorial Day. It was $2.91 last month, said AAA-Alabama spokesman Clay Ingram, who could not predict this year's Memorial Day high. "We're starting a lot higher than last year," Ingram said. Gulf Coast tourism officials are counting on people taking vacations to prop their feet up and toast quiet sunsets despite an uncertain economy. Winter tourism last year on the Alabama Gulf grew by 4.2 percent over 2006; spring increased nearly 18 percent; summer was up 25 percent, and fall increased 13 percent, according to figures released this month. And there are more rooms to rent. Last year, cities on Baldwin County's coast opened 161 hotel rooms and 779 condo units, boosting the total number of lodging units to 15,263. These beach resorts, drawing from surrounding states, could benefit from tourists who choose to vacation closer to home and avoid long drives into Florida, said Gulf Shores restaurant owner Eddie Spence. "I feel that we are poised to have one of the biggest tourist seasons ever in spite of the bad economy," he said. He added, "So many people have been closed in because of financial issues and weather that they are looking for some sunshine, beaches and water activity to let their body and minds relax." The 2007 lodging and retail figures released this month reflected tourist activity at Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan, all pummeled by Ivan in September of 2004 but mostly spared from the devastation suffered in Mississippi and Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Taxable lodging rentals for last year reached a record $237 million, up $39 million from 2006, according to data collected by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. But taxable retail sales -- everything from groceries to building supplies to souvenir sales -- finished the year at $627 million or down 1.8 percent. Tourism officials said the previous lodgings record on the Alabama Gulf was set in 2004, before Ivan arrived in September.