Images of past hurricane devastation may make vacationers think twice in 2005.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Morgan Lynch and Derval Concannon had never traveled to Florida before, but the Irish couple found the favorable exchange rate and affordable airfare too good to pass up.
"The exchange rate is so good now that a lot of people like us are coming across to the States," said Lynch, a computer consultant from Dublin, as he and his girlfriend sipped coffee on a chilly morning recently at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
International tourists like Lynch and Concannon have put Florida on the path toward its best tourism year since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. For the first nine months of 2004, the number of visitors to the state was up 4.1 percent from the same period of 2003, while hotel and motel occupancy was up 10 percent. Orlando's major theme parks had estimated attendance gains of 7 percent to 14 percent in 2004.
But behind the good news is an uneasiness about what will happen to the tourism business during summer 2005, a year after four hurricanes hit Florida and brought the state's biggest industry to a halt for days at a time. Many in Florida's $51 billion tourism industry wonder whether visitors -- particularly conventioneers -- will stay away during the storm season that runs June 1 to Nov. 30.
"Our concern for the future is perception," said Vanessa Welter, spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's private-public tourism marketing agency.
Even parts of the state that weren't hit by any of the 2004 storms are concerned about tourism during the next hurricane season.
The Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for television advertising in 2005, in addition to the print advertising it usually does. It wants to make sure its customer base from the southeastern states returns in the summer. Panama City Beach escaped damage from Hurricane Ivan, which struck farther west along the Gulf Coast.
"We read survey results that ... indicated that people have a perception that the hurricanes have had a negative effect," said Bob Warren, the bureau's president and CEO. "The best way to combat perception is to show them reality."
At a recent meeting in Miami Beach, hoteliers, county officials and convention bureau officials made plans to establish a telephone hot line during the season and arrange for guests of beachside hotels to find inland hotels during storms.
"It's always good to be prepared" even though Miami was spared in 2004, said Stuart Blumberg, president and CEO of the Greater Miami & amp; the Beaches Hotel Association.
Visit Florida officials said in December that a fifth of potential summer visitors told market researchers they would consider avoiding the state for fear of future storms. The start of next year's hurricane season likely will invite a barrage of TV footage showing the destruction left by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne at about the same time families make plans for summer vacations.
The concerns run beyond 2005 -- Visit Florida survey said the state could have difficulty securing convention and corporate meeting business for years because of the storms.
The late summer and early fall, the peak of storm season, represents about $12.2 billion in tourism spending, nearly a quarter of what the industry generates all year.
Still, despite the industry's anxiety, it doesn't appear that many convention planners are changing their itineraries. The American Dental Association moved its conference in Orlando from September to October, but otherwise there have been no cancellations or postponements of conventions in the area during the 2005 hurricane season, said Danielle Courtenay, spokeswoman for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & amp; Visitors Bureau.
But hotel owner Harris Rosen, who has 5,000 rooms on six properties in central Florida, said he expected meeting planners to pressure Florida hoteliers to lower rates during the hurricane months.
"They are shopping hard and will come prepared to negotiate, suggesting they are taking some risks booking during the hurricane season," Rosen said. "We will tell them what happened last year is an aberration ... They will counter by saying 'You can't be sure.'"
Rosen said all will be forgotten if next year's storm season is mild.
"If we manage to complete  without any hurricane problems, I think the recollection of the hurricanes in '04 will evaporate," he said.
XOn the Net: www.visitflorida.com.
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