No down at the ocean

Despite signs of slowdown, number of weekend visitors remains steady

July 03, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Ocean City - If this is supposed to be the summer of our discontent - a lagging economy, record-high gasoline prices and a cloud of anxiety - lots of hard-headed tourists and merchants at the beach aren't willing to surrender the vacation season just yet.

To be sure, there are signs of a slowdown: Weekday vacancies at hotels along Coastal Highway, more three- and four-day stays rather than weeklong bookings, and restaurants with free tables - a sign that folks, once here, may be eating out a little less.

But population counts suggest that many people are finding a way to carry on family traditions honed over years of summer trips down the ocean.

"We book our condo in January to make sure we get it over the Fourth. We just wouldn't miss it," said Gary Bucher, a postal worker from Reading, Pa.

He and his wife, Sharon, come here every summer to share their vacation with good friends who travel from New Hampshire.

"The real reason is crabs - a bushel, half-a-bushel - we all love crabs," Bucher said.

Bonnie Morris of Preston said the bleak economic outlook makes her nervous, but not enough to cancel her family's annual three- to four-day getaway.

"We only do this once a year, so it's something we all look forward to," said Morris, a homemaker.

She was making no promises about next summer, though.

"We'll have to look close next time if things keep on like they are now," she said.

Town officials say the number of weekend visitors this season has been the same as last year.

Population estimates based on water use suggest that the number of weekend visitors in June was virtually identical to June 2007, an average of 235,000.

While the town doesn't do estimates for weekdays, business owners say the number of weekday visitors seems to be down.

"We've had a good year so far, but people are definitely shortening their stays," said Heather Navalayeu, general manager of the Francis Scott Key Motel, just across the U.S. 50 bridge from Ocean City. "There seem to be a lot of people who're coming for three or four days instead of a week."

For those who timed their trips to avoid tomorrow's holiday hoopla, midweek parking spots were in ample supply.

"I couldn't believe how many parking places we've found," said Morris' daughter, Tammi Clough, who spent four days with her parents before heading home yesterday to Federalsburg. "We walked right in at restaurants where there are usually lines."

Some restaurant owners say they're beginning to feel a dip in overall sales for food and alcohol, according to Susan L. Jones, executive director of the city's hotel and restaurant association.

"It's very mixed, and it depends on who you're talking to," said Jones. "But there's no question that customers are cutting costs."

"Now we're beginning to see that the average of each check at restaurants is getting lower," she said. "It's an indication that people are really being careful. They seem to be cutting back."

But the economy also is bringing new visitors. Dale and Trudy Waite of Kinzers, Pa., said they usually vacation in Florida.

"Of course, we have an SUV, and it would cost a fortune in gas," Dale Waite said.

And with business off at his landscaping company, the couple decided it was best to stay at Trudy's father's place in Fenwick Island, just up the road in Delaware.

"We can't afford Florida this year, but we can still get a break from everything," Waite said. "Everybody needs that."

By yesterday, about half the city's hotels and motels reported they were booked up for the long Fourth of July weekend.

Hoteliers say tourists increasingly scour the Internet for the cheapest prices until the last possible minute.

But with Independence Day falling on a Friday, merchants said they were confident the city will bring in more than 300,000 visitors for the weekend.

Rudolph Dolle, whose family has sold candies and other sweets to boardwalk customers for more than 100 years, says he's not concerned this year, regardless of bad economic news.

He has hired his summer staff of about 60 people, and they are ready for what is expected to be the busiest part of the season.

"Believe it or not, we've had a good year so far," Dolle said.

"As much as we hear about gas prices, I haven't seen it as a deterrent," he said. "Gas is a buck more than last year. To people in Baltimore, Washington, Pennsylvania, that's not a big deal. It's a tank of gas or maybe less."

If there's anything that's recession-proof in Ocean City, it's fudge.

Robin Derrickson, the boardwalk "fudge lady," says her business has been terrific so far.

"Nobody seems to be talking about the price of gas," said Derrickson, now in her 24th season whipping up treats for tourists. "As long as I keep cranking out the fudge, we'll be fine."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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