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Record holiday visitor numbers expected

By Staff | Jan 7, 2015

Chamber welcoming center staffer Jim Slatterly uses a map to assist a visitor in navigating Sanibel and Captiva. CRAIG GARRETT

Wow.

While final numbers are tallied, islanders were stunned – and in most cases thrilled – with a holiday confluence of the nation’s warmest weather, returning locals and a deluge in tourists.

The main drag, Periwinkle Way, in the two-week holiday period was gridlock, with the tail end of traffic returning over the Causeway on some sunny evenings slowing at Rabbit Road. It was the same creep in morning traffic heading onto the islands.

The city stationed volunteer traffic coordinators at many intersections to ease the flow, which was especially critical for those on bicycles, and for the walkers and joggers plying the island’s ribbon of paths. Still, more than a few fender-benders were tallied, police officials reported.

The good news in the surge meant packed restaurants, shopping sites and beaches, a Sanibel Captiva Islands Chamber official reported. Rental and resort occupancy was nearly 100 percent, with a few availabilities arising, possibly due to traffic.

The San-Cap Chamber visitor center on Causeway Road, in some instances, had tourists lined out the door. An average daily guest count over the two weeks through Jan. 1 was about 800, a spokeswoman said. The surge in visitors at the chamber’s welcoming center kept volunteers and staff on their toes for the entire month, spokeswoman Blanaid Colley said.

“We have had a very busy December this year at the Chamber’s Visitor Center, with many people stopping by for information about our islands, many of them first time visitors to Sanibel and Captiva,” Colley said.

As final numbers are tallied, year-to-date figures through October in Sanibel and Captiva will likely produce records in sales, tolls, occupancy and other indicators of a surge in growth and interest in southwest Florida. Lee County bed taxes collected in October, for instance, were nearly $1.5 million, a 22 percent increase over October 2013 and the largest collection for that month since data were first compiled, according to the county’s Visitor & Convention Bureau.

There was other positive news for 2014. Lee County’s Sports Development office generated more impact in July than any other month in its 11-year history. The results in the doldrums of summer included 37,935 hotel room nights and $16.8 million in direct visitor spending. And during October, 503,243 passengers traveled through Southwest Florida International Airport, an increase of 5.2 percent compared to October 2013. Passenger traffic is up 4.4 percent year-to-date.

The December rush was excellent news for island vendors.

“We are smashing our (previous sales) numbers,” said Loretta Fernandez, a server at the popular Island Cow restaurant in Sanibel, a longtime islander who said that Hurricane Charley, the national economic disaster and the BP oil spill combined to impact tourism in the last decade. “Oh my, gosh,” she said. “Periwinkle (Way) has been like a parking lot.”

Other than drivers steaming behind the wheel in gridlock, there were other stories of coping, said Alison Dry, co-owner of Cip’s Place in Sanibel, where lines and longer waiting times were common in the favored restaurant.

“We appreciate the patience our customers have shown us,” Dry said.