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PINELLAS BEACH HOTELS FILLING UP FOR JULY 4

The long July 4 weekend should help hotels along the Pinellas beaches that have been struggling to overcome public misconceptions about the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Many of the larger resort hotels are nearly sold out, said David Downing, assistant director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"The needle is moving in the right direction," Downing said.

People traditionally stay closer to home for July 4, so local hotels are trying to attract visitors from Florida. Local residents are more familiar with which beaches are affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and know the Pinellas beaches are fine.

"The farther you get away from Florida, the harder it is" to convince people the beaches here are okay, Downing said.

Because they're clean and oil-free, Pinellas beaches could to attract folks who would otherwise go to the Florida Panhandle.

A new study from AAA found that 87 percent of people planning trips to the Gulf Coast within the next 12 months are not changing their plans. Of those who are, 20 percent were doing so because of the oil disaster.

AAA expects about 6 percent more July 4 travelers than last year. The improving economy is giving people more confidence to travel. Many who skipped vacations last year are making plans this year, "even though it may only be a couple of hours away," AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said.

In all, about 1.4 million travellers are expected to hit the road in Florida this weekend.

The Florida Highway Patrol will have about 1,000 officers patrolling each day until July 5, Sgt. Larry Krauss said. More officers will be out than usual because administrative work is suspended and all officers patrol on holidays.

No checkpoints are planned, but officers will conduct flyover details to look for high-speed areas.

Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or sgregory@sptimes.com.

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