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As the weather heats up, so does tourist season

C an you feel it? The jealousy? ¶ Warm weekly forecasts. Gentle breezes. Sun and sand and the upcoming spring. It's enough to drive Northerners — beset for weeks by blizzards, black ice and snowstorms — crazy. ¶ It's also, tourism professionals hope, enough to push them and their vacation money southward toward Clearwater Beach.

Hoteliers have already begun seeing booms in business this week, an early transition to the heavy-hitting spring season that begins in March and lasts for months. And they credit much of that to the warming weather, which forecasters predict could mean the end to our bitter winter.

The Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa, which opened last year, expects to take in $100,000 more than projected over the next two weeks, much of it due to the warming weather.

"It's had a big impact," general manager Brian Kramer said. "In the last week and a half, our reservations lines have exploded."

Some of the smaller motels aren't seeing a surge in business at this point. "We're doing okay, but we would definitely like to see it a little better," said Jay Patel, manager of the 24-room Sunrise Resort near the Hyatt.

The next weeks open the busy season for Clearwater Beach, as fans of the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training and students on spring break pack restaurants and hotel rooms.

They're a welcome relief for the local tourism industry, which faced a winter's worth of poor sales blamed on a record-cold December and the flight cancellations that paralyzed the northern United States.

"People up North, they see what the weather's like here," said Bill Dudley, who rents out cabanas and chairs on Clearwater Beach. "It's starting to pick up. I can see it getting better."

The newfound heat corresponds serendipitously with a million-dollar ad campaign launched this month by the county's tourism bureau, Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater.

Thousands of New York City subway cars, elevator screens, buses, billboards and newspaper ads will be slathered with warm, sunshine-slicked pictures of Florida's coastline and slogans like "NY C You Later" and "Call In Sick. Of Winter."

The media onslaught, predicted to hit millions of Yankee eyeballs, was planned for a time when Florida's forecasts would be hard to ignore.

"The difficult thing is when you are selling a destination that is weather-dependent, when you have something that is as wild-card as our weather can be," said David Downing, the bureau's deputy director. "The weather this week is exactly what we want to put in front of them."

About 5 million overnight visitors traveled to Pinellas County last year, spending $6.3 billion, Downing said. That was 1 percent more than 2009 — about 50,000 people. This year, officials expect even more — an increase of 3 percent.

The tourists are people like Mike and Robin Mogish, who fended off sea gulls this week from their folding chairs on Clearwater Beach.

They left their home in Mountain Top, Pa., to drive Mike's father to his winter condo in Clearwater. When they got here, they decided to stay for a short vacation.

"Look at this, a sunny day," Mike said. Back home, in Mountain Top, temperatures peaked at a balmy 28 degrees. "This is a heat wave."

Quietly, in the distance, a cash register rings.

"They love the warm weather, the fragrance of the salt air and the sun shining brightly," said Darlene Kole, president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Who wouldn't?"

Emily Swangren, a nanny who flew in for work from Wisconsin, stayed this week at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort.

On Tuesday afternoon, she lounged on the pool deck, watching the tide and reading People magazine.

It wasn't as warm as she would have liked, she said. The sea breeze had forced her into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt.

But two weeks ago, a blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow on her Milwaukee doorstep. She shoveled for four hours. Snowstorms loomed.

She looked out at the sand and laughed.

"Makes this seem not bad."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

As the weather heats up, so does tourist season 02/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 8:06pm]

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