GULF SHORES, Ala. Alabama beach resorts posted record visitor spending on lodgings last year, bouncing back three years after Hurricane Ivan left widespread wreckage on the coast.
Tourism officials hope high gas prices and a slide in the national economy won't reverse those gains this year.
March heralds student spring break frolics and the kickoff of get-to-the-beach tourism.
Visitors driving to the Gulf Coast may notice that gasoline prices tend to bottom-out at the end of January, then start rising in March and peak on Memorial Day.
Last year, the average price for regular unleaded in Alabama was $2.05 at the end of January, soaring to $3.08 on Memorial Day. It was $2.91 in January, said AAA-Alabama spokesman Clay Ingram of Birmingham.
"We're starting a lot higher than last year," Ingram said.
Ingram said he's noticed that people start cutting back on spending when gas hits $3 a gallon.
Gulf Coast tourism officials count on people taking vacations to prop their feet up and toast quiet sunsets despite an uncertain economy.
Events scheduled for March and April in the region include sports tournaments (baseball, volleyball, softball, fishing), and concerts at The Wharf, an entertainment and shopping venue. Public beaches attract visitors at Gulf State Park, between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, while live music, food and drink pulls in the crowds at the Flora-Bama Lounge on the Alabama-Florida border at Perdido Key, and at Lulu's, run by singer Jimmy Buffett's sister, Lucy, on the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores.
Spring is also a nice time of year for bird-watching at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Morgan Historical Park and Fort Gaines at Dauphin Island. A bird-banding event is held at Fort Morgan March 29-April 11, and visitors are invited to watch as conservationists band migratory birds making landfall here from South and Central America.
Winter tourism last year on the Alabama Gulf grew by 4.2 percent over 2006; spring increased nearly 18 percent; summer was up nearly 25 percent and fall increased 13 percent.
And there are more rooms to rent. Last year, cities on Baldwin County's coast opened 161 hotel rooms and 779 condo units, boosting the total number of lodging units to 15,263.
These beach resorts, drawing from surrounding states, could benefit from tourists who choose to vacation closer to home and avoid long drives into Florida, said Gulf Shores restaurant owner Eddie Spence.
"I feel that we are poised to have one of the biggest tourist seasons ever in spite of the bad economy," he said.
He added, "So many people have been closed in because of financial issues and weather that they are looking for some sunshine, beaches and water activity to let their body and minds relax."
Still, high gas prices cut into any budget.
The 2007 lodging and retail figures released recently reflected tourist activity at Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan, all pummeled by Ivan in September of 2004 but mostly spared from the devastation suffered in Mississippi and Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.
Taxable lodging rentals for last year reached a record $237 million, up $39 million from 2006, according to data collected by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But taxable retail sales everything from groceries to building supplies to souvenir sales finished the year at $627 million down 1.8 percent after fluctuating throughout 2007.
Herb Malone, president and CEO of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects new retailers, particularly at Colonial Pinnacle and The Wharf, will boost retail sales this year.
Tourism officials say the previous lodgings record on the Alabama Gulf was set in 2004, when business was knocked out by Ivan in September.
"We saw good growth going into 2004, and we saw 2005 drop and 2006 start back up. Now we're well in excess of 2004. I think the storm mentality has pretty much gone away as it relates to our destinations," said Mike Foster, a spokesman for the convention and visitors bureau.
Boosting that optimism, last year's hurricane season also ended with no storm damage to the Alabama coast.