OCEAN CITY - With May weekends already drawing crowds usually seen in June, Morad Ramadan believes a banner summer is about to unfold in Ocean City.
"It looks very good," Ramadan said. "Last year was an excellent year, and I see it being better than last year."
FOR THE RECORD - In the May 18 Business section, a caption of a photo accompanying an article about Ocean City misidentified the restaurant pictured. The photo was taken at Sumo Subs and TCBY. The Sun regrets the error.
Revenue at the three Subway Sandwich and Salad shops he owns with his father is up about 20 percent from this time last year. Ramadan opened a fourth store, on his own, last month.
"I've never seen it like this before," Ramadan said.
Like other restaurateurs, merchants and hoteliers in the seaside resort, Ramadan is hoping that Ocean City's proximity to Baltimore, Washington and other metropolitan areas will attract vacationers still leery of flying.
In addition, the troubled economy is expected to prompt more vacationers to choose cheaper, close-to-home destinations. Across the country, AAA is seeing increased demand for its signature customized road maps, according to Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA-Mid-Atlantic.
But the economic down-draft also is projected to dampen spending, cut lengths of stay, encourage more day-tripping and last-minute planning - trends that apparently have contributed to slow bookings for Ocean City rentals and lodging thus far.
The Travel Industry Association of America predicts that Americans will stay away an average of 7.9 nights on their longest pleasure trip, down slightly from last summer. And travelers will continue to watch pennies, spending an average of $1,055 on their longest pleasure trip, stable from 2002 but down about 9 percent from 2001.
"It's the pocketbook issues that people are most thinking about when they plan their vacation," Anderson said. "We're going to find fewer longer vacations."
Jim Waggoner, vice president and director of resort rentals for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., which has more than 1,200 rental properties in Maryland and Delaware, said reservations booked through the end of April were down 6 percent from the previous year.
"New vacationers are waiting later, they don't seem to feel the urgency they've felt in years past," he said. "The reservations we're making now in May or June in the past we might have made in January or February."
Nevertheless, Waggoner said, he expects to end the year up 5 percent over last year.
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, which handles about 2,400 properties between Ocean City and Lewes, Del., also reported lagging rentals.
"Occupancy is about 10 percent behind last year, but we have more inventory as well," said Susan B. Holt, senior vice president and regional director. "Reservations are starting to pick up now as families start to think about bringing the kids to the beach."
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, reports similar patterns.
"It looks like the trend for the summer will be last-minute reservations," she said. "That's what's happening all over the country. Where they used to book a month out, now they book a week out. The exception would be the small hotels who have the same customers each year."
One of those, the 34-room Talbot Inn, is booked solid for the weekends with repeat customers, according to Robert E. Apy, who works the front desk. But it's hard to predict what kind of business those crowds will bring, he said.
"Whether the tourists will dig deep in their pockets, we won't know until the season is under way," he said.
Despite the slow start, for now - as on the cusp of every summer season - optimism rules as workers on the 10-mile-long barrier island hammer and saw and paint to prepare for an expected 4 million or more visitors.
"I think everyone is hopeful, as always," said Linda Wright, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "Things are definitely picking up."
Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias said he is cautiously optimistic, given the slow economy, troop deployments and stock market losses sustained by many.
"We're praying for good weather," he said.
Weather is always a key factor in helping the seaside town fill its more than 10,000 hotel rooms and more than 25,000 condominiums. At peak occupancy, this town of 7,500 swells to more than 325,000.
According to Ocean City's finance office, last year's summer tourists generated at least $1 billion in economic impact. During the three summer months, visitors contributed $6.8 million in hotel room tax alone. Total sales and use taxes for Worcester County, where Ocean City is located, brought in $20.5 million from June to August.
Granville D. Trimper, president and CEO of Trimper Rides and Amusements at the south end of the boardwalk, is keeping his fingers crossed that the days will not all be so hot and dry that the only business he gets comes at night.
"Even though the economy isn't good ... I think people will still take their vacations," he said. "I think people are anxious to get out and enjoy themselves a little. It's been such a cold, drab winter."