To go or not to go? That is question when hurricane threatens

Labor Day vacation plans for Fla., Caribbean put on hold, changed by Frances

September 02, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Sue Taylor's family of five was supposed be flying to the Bahamas today, but she didn't see the point -- what with Hurricane Frances whirling in from the other direction.

So the Taylors are staying put in Harford County for the Labor Day weekend. No swimming with the dolphins. No tanning on resort lounge chairs. No Caribbean celebration for 16-year-old Whitney, who had turned down a big birthday party in July in favor of a big vacation now.

"Who wants to go to a tropical island with rough conditions and high winds?" said Taylor, 43, who lives in Fallston.

Hurricanes are unwelcome visitors any day, but for tourists and beach businesses, there's no time as lousy as a holiday weekend. People with plans in the projected travel path of the storm -- which may hit coastal Florida early Saturday -- are faced with the eternal question: To go or not to go?

Caribbean resorts are getting cancellations. Cruise lines are rerouting some ships, and one Carnival cruise was canceled yesterday. U.S. travel agents are scrambling to reorganize vacations for clients.

The Florida Keys' tourism council found in a survey of major hotels this week that reservations are down about 15 percent because of Frances. Those hotels had originally anticipated that they'd be filled near capacity.

"I would anticipate that in terms of tourism, ... it's going to be a light weekend all over the state," said Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But hotels outside the storm's wrath will probably get a bounce from people who would rather not sleep in an emergency shelter. When Hurricane Charley hit three weeks ago, Miami hotels came out even -- losing tourists but gaining evacuees.

This time around, hotels in Miami are getting "Should we come or not?" calls from about 10 percent of those holding reservations, according to the local convention and visitors bureau.

Most Maryland residents probably won't have to rework their plans to suit the storm because Labor Day vacationers usually don't travel more than several hours from home, said John White, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

AAA expects that about 585,000 Marylanders will travel at least 50 miles this weekend, about 80 percent of them on the road. Nearby beaches, Hersheypark in Pennsylvania and historic Williamsburg, Va., are popular destinations, White said.

Frances shouldn't impinge much on those trips. The National Weather Service doesn't expect Maryland will see any part of the storm until late Monday -- if at all.

But the back-to-back hurricanes are a tourism bummer for Floridians. Businesses had hoped Labor Day would help make up for the slow patch after Hurricane Charley forced the evacuation of visitors in some areas.

The Florida Keys lost about $40 million in tourism-related sales as a result of Charley, its tourism council estimates. Because tourism accounts for half of all jobs there, bad weather is a bottom-line problem.

"You can move your visitors out very, very quickly, but it's not like they're lining up there at the top of the Keys to clamber back in," said Andy Newman, a spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. "That obviously was a big hit on the economy."

Based on the hurricane's path yesterday, officials in the Keys thought it was unlikely that they would have to order another evacuation, Newman said. Even so, he expects lost business because the storm might strike areas within an easy driving distance that usually contribute many of the island chain's Labor Day visitors.

"They'll be concerned about getting their homes and properties secure," Newman said.

By Monday, the Taylors, who've been closely watching the Weather Channel, realized that their long-anticipated vacation to the Bahamas was probably not going to work out.

"I've been stressed all week about it, and then I decided there's just circumstances beyond our control," Sue Taylor said.

The Atlantis resort will let her family reschedule, so she's hoping that they'll travel to the Bahamas in October. Daughter Whitney had asked to go because her father visited on a business trip and "the pictures were beautiful," the teen said.

Others are taking their Caribbean vacations now -- just not where they planned. Beaumont Martin, a travel agent at Roland Park Travel, helped a Baltimore couple move their Labor Day trip from Nassau to somewhere farther south to get out of Frances' path.

They were looking at the Cayman Islands and Aruba yesterday afternoon and will be flying to one or the other this morning. "I don't think these people like hurricanes to get in their way," she said.

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