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Gulf resorts get boost from July 4 holiday

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
Visitors walk on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on July Fourth.
Visitors walk on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on July Fourth.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gulf Shores Plantation experienced jump in hotel occupancy over holiday
  • Rate reached 60 percent, up from 40 percent to 50 percent since oil disaster
  • Occupancy only down by 10 percent over last year at Sandestin Resort
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(CNN) -- Tourism was "better than expected" over the Fourth of July holiday in some beach communities along the Gulf of Mexico, and the weekend provided a much-needed boost to areas hit hard by the oil disaster.

Holiday occupancy at Gulf Shores Plantation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, reached 60 percent, up from 40 percent to 50 percent in the months since the oil washed ashore.

After next weekend's popular Jimmy Buffett concert, occupancy is expected to drop back down, said Pedro Mandoki, president of property management group Mandoki Hospitality.

"In a nutshell, this season is pretty well killed," Mandoki said. Typically occupancy would reach 95 percent to 98 percent over the July Fourth holiday, which is usually the busiest weekend of the year.

Business is down about 50 percent among other area accommodations, but tourism officials are trying to make the best of it, said Mike Foster, a spokesman for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Actually what we're trying to do is get our industry to focus on the 50 percent that are here and making sure that they have a good time and go home and tell their people about it," Foster said.

Reassuring potential visitors and maintaining the current occupancy numbers is important, he said.

Popular beach communities farther east fared better over the holiday.

"All in all, we feel like we did fairly well, all things considered," said Dawn Moliterno, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourism Development Council.

The coastal Florida area had occupancy rates ranging from 60 percent to 98 percent going into the Fourth of July weekend, Moliterno said.

Nearby in Destin, Florida, some properties were reporting 90-plus percent occupancy rates, said Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce. Cumulative rates are difficult to gauge, but holiday business looked good.

"Based on traffic on the highways and all of the out-of-state plates, it was a very strong weekend," Moody said.

"We'd love for it to continue to the middle of August, but right now if we can salvage July, I think that will help a lot of people."

At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, just east of Destin, occupancy was only down by about 10 percent from last year, said resort president John Russell.

"It was much better than we expected," he said.

The resort's 1,300 units do big business with groups in July, and this year's bookings for those guests are a little ahead of last year, Russell said.

The non-group leisure travel segment, which makes up about 35 percent of July's business, is down by half. But this year customers have been booking within a week of arrival, a much shorter window than last year when visitors typically booked three weeks in advance.

Travelers' wait-and-see stance is nerve-wracking for resort properties.

"That's the tension of it is you don't have that business and you don't know if you're going to get it or not, but if you sell hard and you're giving great service and you have good weather, you can get it," Russell said.

"And we saw that in the Fourth of July."

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