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Hotels full, beaches bare as summit approaches

By Andy Walton

Sun worshippers were few and far between on St. Simons Island Monday.
Secret Service
Coast Guard

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Georgia (CNN) -- While the world refocuses its attention to the G8 summit a few miles from here, the beaches are nearly empty, and the only people boating offshore are the police and Coast Guard.

Anticipating traffic snarls or worse, many island residents opted to spend the week elsewhere. Beaches that would normally be teeming with tourists on a June afternoon were the destination of only a handful Monday.

"A week ago, you couldn't walk on this beach," said John, who grew up on the island and remembers its first traffic light. "I'm parked right there," he said, gesturing to a spot about 50 feet away. "On a normal day you'd park a mile from here."

At Wheel Fun, a company that rents bicycles and pedal cars, business is slow. After sending only a few customers pedaling down the road, Kevin Ryan said, "A ton of people are taking off, as you can tell. It's dead around here."

Area hotels are filled to capacity, but the security personnel and journalists are in town on business -- "not down here with families who are out there in the retail shops," said Glynn County Chamber of Commerce president "Woody" Woodside.

The chamber's chairman-elect admits that some local businesses are feeling the pinch, but says the long-term payoff will more than make up for it.

"The national spotlight that will be thrown on the golden isles, we believe, will bring more people here and in the long term will help our tourism efforts, which will help all our folks here," Michael Hodges said.

Security is tight in advance of the summit, which begins Tuesday and will bring the heads of state of the eight top economic powers to a resort in the nearby town of Sea Island.

Police and military personnel are visible at major intersections on the island, and helicopters patrol the blue skies. Every vehicle on the causeway leading to the island is given at least a cursory check by police.

The marina is quiet and the road to the public boat ramp is blocked off with concrete traffic barriers. The area around the island is off-limits to all but government vessels for the duration of the summit.

Back on the mainland in Brunswick, police from the Atlanta area, Humvees and heavy military trucks are easy to spot.

"This is the safest place in the world you could be right now," says Elizabeth Shell, one of the few beachgoers on St. Simons. "They've got every inch covered."

Police boats patrol the Georgia coast.

Her attitude is shared by many residents who decided to stay. One Secret Service officer said most of the residents he's spoken to are grateful for the added security.

But the glut of law enforcement doesn't comfort Robert Randall, one of the organizers of "The Other Economic Summit" and the "Fair World Fair," events being held on the grounds of a community college in Brunswick.

"There was an awful lot of disinformation and a lot of fear mongering spread around in the community about tens of thousands of protesters," Randall said. "And then the police and the military come in with this big show of force, which freaks people out even more."

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