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Winter vacations may be picking up as economy thaws

By John Blake, CNN

A stroll along Waikiki beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
A stroll along Waikiki beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • More Americans are taking winter getaways, travel experts say
  • The recession brutalized winter travel sector
  • Ski resort visits and resort travel up this winter
  • Lodging expert: "The shock is over"

(CNN) -- Some people look at the stock market while others scan the latest unemployment figures. But Rob DeRocker has an unusual barometer for measuring the strength of the American economy.

He calls it "Dianna's Fancy."

Dianna's Fancy is a 1,700 square foot condo in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Each winter, DeRocker rents the condo out to vacationers who want to escape the cold by frolicking in the turquoise waters of St. Croix. DeRocker dubbed the condo "Dianna" in honor of a close friend who helped design it.

When the U.S. economy nose-dived last year, DeRocker and his wife, Melinda, had the slowest winter they ever experienced. They couldn't find any renters and practically gave the condo away to friends in last-minute deals.

"This year has already been shaping up to be more promising," says DeRocker, an economic consultant who lives outside New York City. "The condo is rented through January and we've gotten inquiries that would extend to May. In fact, we're jockeying now to see when we can get there ourselves."

The nation may be struggling through a bitter winter chill, but there are signs that the economy could be poised to thaw. Travel analysts say winter getaway travel is inching upward, and people like DeRocker are starting to see sunshine again.

Winter travel numbers are inching up in several categories, such as ski resort visits, and the hotel occupancy rate is expected to rebound later this year, travel analysts say.

Signs of a winter thaw?

Scott D. Berman, an analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that his company's research shows that hotel lodging demand should increase this year.

In 2009, the hotel occupancy percentage (the average percentage of rooms a lodge has reserved for customers) was 55.2 percent, seven percentage points below the long-term average of 62.8 percent, Berman says.

But PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts predict that the hotel occupancy percentage will grow to 55.8 percent this year to accommodate growing demand, Berman says.

"There is cautious optimism for 2010 but nobody is euphoric by any means," Berman says. "The industry hit bottom in 2009. It's been a shock to the system, but the shock is over."

Like cherry blossoms budding at the beginning of spring, the signs of increased winter traveling may be small, but they are there.

At one of the premier golfing resorts in Florida, business is up this year, officials say. The PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens hosts professional golfing events, but they also open their courses for public play to resort guests.

Now the public is returning to play, says Craig Falanga, the resort's marketing director. He says room revenue in December of 2009 was up almost 10 percent compared to the previous December and golf packages are up 30 percent this month compared to January of 2009. Christmas and New Year's week food and beverage sales were also up 20 percent, he says.

"There's only so long people will put their passion for golf on the back burner," Falanga says. "As the economy recovers, we anticipate that our guests will continue to return year after year, or even multiple times each year.''

There were other signs that winter travel is starting to pick up.

At the beach:

The industry hit bottom in 2009. It's been a shock to the system, but the shock is over.
--Scott D. Berman

The Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida says there was a 6.2 percent increase in visitors during October/November of 2009 compared to the same two-month period in the previous year.

And on the ski slopes:

The U.S. ski industry reported a large number of visitors for the 2008/2009 season.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, an association for ski area owners and operators, 57.4 million skiers hit the slopes during the 2008/09 season -- the fourth highest total since the association started surveys in 1979.

Travel slump could lead to better deals

But there were still some signs that winter travel remains stagnant.

The Air Transport Association reported that air travel declined 2. 5 percent this holiday season (from December 17 to January 6) compared to last year.

Yet ATA spokesman David Castelveter told Money Magazine that this holiday season decrease is less dramatic than last year's Thanksgiving travel period decrease of 4 percent.

"You're seeing some improvement," Castelveter told the magazine. "I think these numbers reflect that there is some growing confidence by travelers.", an online discount travel site, also reported that travel bookings are slightly down during the first month of the new year. Bookings for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend this month, for example, are down 6 percent as compared to the same time in 2009, Hotwire officials say.

Clem Bason, Hotwire's president, says travelers have learned to wait to see if prices will fall as they approach their travel dates. Those that do travel should find good deals because hotels are struggling to put people in rooms, he says.

"If 2009 was the year of the deal for hotels, 2010 will definitely continue the trend," Bason says. "Business and leisure travel will still be down, which means great rates and availability in top locations. Stabilization won't settle in until the back half of the year, but prices should remain relatively low even then."

And for those who still can't afford to travel, they can invent their own private winter getaway like Allison Edles, a publicist an editor who lives in New Jersey.

Edles has been in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Maine for two years. They couldn't afford any fancy winter getaways so they split their winter vacation between their homes.

"Our biggest expense was seeing 'Avatar,' '' says Edles about the recent sci-fi movie hit.

Edles says they played board games, cards and baked peppermint cookies and eggnog pancakes. They may not have spent time at a sun-kissed condo in the Virgin Islands, but they made it work.

"I've always been a stay-at-home and make your own fun kind of person," she says. "We had a great time."