TARPON SPRINGS — It's hard to say exactly what's causing the early influx of tourists into Epiphany City this year.
An early blizzard up north that sent snowbirds scurrying for their suitcases? A sign that the sluggish economy is finally on the mend?
Whatever the reason, business owners said they expect a huge turnout for today's 106th Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration, because the number of tourists in town is up.
"Season always starts in January, but this year people are coming from before Christmas. People from Virginia, New York, all over. This is good for us," said Sunbay Motel owner Peter Fanoudis. "It's much better than last year."
Sue Thomas, president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, said Epiphany provides the local economy with a "wonderful" boost. She said parking lots around the city have been "packed" since last week.
"When we have something like that, we pull people from everywhere and that does us a world of good," Thomas said. "Even if people don't go shopping or use the restaurants, at least they're remembering that we're here and we're hoping that'll stick in their minds and they'll come back."
Epiphany organizers and local merchants have also benefitted from an additional 300 visitors from Ohio, New York, the District of Columbia, Indiana and elsewhere who are attending the second annual Pan-Kalymnian Federation of America convention in Tarpon Springs.
The convention — pegged as part family reunion, part business trip — began Thursday and ends Sunday. Events include meetings with Tarpon's sister city committee and with St. Petersburg College to flesh out a student exchange partnership that will allow local residents to stay with residents of the Greek island of Kalymnos while they study abroad, said Tarpon Springs Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos.
Kalymnos Mayor Dimitris Diakomichalis couldn't attend, but a representative, Drosos Tavlarios, has come in his place, Alahouzos said. There's a large convention banquet planned at the Spanos Pappas Community Center on Saturday night.
An estimated 3,000 people already living in Tarpon — including the Epiphany dove bearers this year and last — are of Kalymnian descent, according to Kalymnian Society of Tarpon Springs member Irene Karavokiros.
"It's a nice thing because people who come for the convention will be able to be part of the Epiphany celebration," Karavokiros said. The out-of-town Kalymnians also "get to see one of their own out there in the spotlight."
Alahouzos said he hopes those drawn to the city for Epiphany and the convention will like what they see so much they'll make Tarpon Springs a regular vacation spot. He said restaurant owners were reporting an "extremely busy" week.
Mike "Sfeeka" Koursiotis, owner of the Original Mama Maria's on Alt. U.S. 19, was buzzing around town Thursday in final preparation for what he expects to be a hectic weekend. Haircut? Check. Extra plates, glasses and silverware from the restaurant supply store? Check. Greek Bouzouki player scheduled for Saturday night? Check.
Koursiotis said he thinks the uptick in visitors this year may be a sign the economy is rebounding.
"Epiphany is what brings us into season, though this year was different. It was busier in December, so it was an early kickoff to season," he said. "Every other car out there is an out-of-state plate."
Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie said the Epiphany celebration, steeped in religious and historical significance, brings national and international attention to Tarpon Springs that can potentially draw visitors at other times of the year.
He added that today's promising weather forecast — with temperatures expected to be in the upper 60s to low 70s, with low humidity — could bode well for the number of people attending services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the cross dive in Spring Bayou.
Normally, he said, the city expects about 25,000 to attend.
"We'd like to have a lot more than that," he said, "and hopefully people can see some of the changes that we have made in our city and then desire to come back when they have time to really look at some of the sites we have here."
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.