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Tampa Bay hotels, beaches try to lure tourists back after Hurricane Irma

Chicago visitors David Sells, 28, and Brad Anderson, 28, spend time on St. Pete Beach, Friday. Both are staying at the beach for a four day weekend. "We had our doubts about staying here after the storm. After we called the hotel, they told us everything was fine and to come on down," said Sells. "It's a been beautiful so far," he said. Both are staying at the Beachcomber Beach Resort Hotel in St. Pete Beach. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Sep. 18, 2017

TAMPA — Now that Hurricane Irma's winds have passed, Tampa Bay's tourism industry is eager to get visitors flying back in. The message: Irma hasn't derailed us.

"The tourism industry is resilient," said Leroy Bridges, media and interactive director at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. "It's important to get back to normal as soon as possible."

"It's business as usual," added Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. "We are in good shape to continue tourism here."

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

While sympathetic to hard-hit destinations such as the Florida Keys, Jacksonville and Miami Beach, Corrada said part of the messaging to tourists is that not all of Florida was impacted the same way. Tampa Bay came out well considering the projections of potential flooding, storm surge and wind damage.

"Unless you lived through an event like Hurricane Andrew," he said. "You don't understand how very fortunate we are."

Many local hotels — if they have power — are booked and busy already. Even without an influx of travelers returning, they have plenty of powerless residents and out-of-town relief workers filling their rooms.

Yet, there's still room to accommodate more guests, said Bob Morrison, director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association. As more homes get power restored, more rooms are becoming available, he continued. At the same time, more hotels are regaining electricity and opening up again.

Most of the top tourist attractions — including Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Riverwalk and Lowry Park Zoo — are back open. Tampa International Airport, which opened with limited operations Tuesday, and St. Pete-Clearwater Airport both resumed flights Wednesday.

Sports fans will also spill into town to attend several football games including the Tampa Classic, a match-up between Florida A&M and Tennessee State, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Chicago Bears.

Patrick Burns, the manager of the Crystal Bay Hotel in St. Pete, said he received a few worried calls from international travelers, who he reassured them that hotel was "full service" and ready for guests.

"We are not missing a beat," he said. "If they get here by the weekend, they won't even know the difference."

Tourism is a big economic driver for Tampa Bay and the state with consistent record-setting tourism numbers. Last year, 22.6 million people visited Tampa and Hillsborough County pumping nearly $6 billion into the economy, according to a study commissioned by Visit Tampa Bay. Pinellas County had more than 15 million visitors totaling about $10 billion in economic impact, according to the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

TradeWinds Island Grand Resort on St. Pete Beach is completely booked this weekend hosting close to 1,200 Duke Energy workers, who arrived Monday night to help restore power throughout the area. The energy company commissioned close to 13,000 additional out-of-state workers.

Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds, expects a quiet and slow weekend with limited hotel staff, as the energy linemen work throughout the day and are provided meals off-site.

St. Petersburg's The Vinoy Renaissance Resort and Golf Club is also sold out but was fully booked before Irma.

"We are back on our feet again," Vibeke Sansone, the director of sales and marketing, said. She added the property received little flood damage and a few broken windows, which temporarily made some rooms unavailable. The golf course is without power.

The Don CeSar expects a "fairly full house" and to be "operating at 100 percent," as the hotel reopened on Friday, said Jim Gross, the interim general manager. The Beach House Suites by the Don CeSar opened Wednesday.

Not every hotel was untouched. The morning after Irma, a ton of debris from the roof of the Howard Johnson Resort Hotel in St. Pete Beach scattered across the parking lot. Nevertheless, the hotel opened Friday.

Among smaller lodgings, Bob Sauerwine, general manager of Postcard Inn, also reported little damage.

"Everything is totally fine; we're fully operational," he said, adding that the hotel had "very little" cancellations.

Contact Tierra Smith at tsmith@ tampabay.com. Follow @bytierrasmith.

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