ORLANDO, Fla. — Rene Blanco reaches for his back pocket where the tips go and shakes his head, his hand coming up empty.
Skyrocketing gas prices and the sour economy have left tourist destinations around the country feeling the pinch as consumers cut back their discretionary spending, shortening or even canceling vacations.
With its international reputation as a theme park and family vacation haven, Orlando has fared better than most, although some small hotels are reporting drastic drops in business and tourism leaders admit to being worried.
“For the first six months of the year, we held up much better than many other destinations, but we’re not immune to what’s going on in the national economy,” said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s going to be a challenging fall.”
The bureau’s resort tax collections actually rose year over year for the first six months of 2008, climbing a respectable 4.2 percent. But June’s numbers were down almost 3 percent from the previous year, raising red flags that the continuing economic downturn is starting to take a toll.
“There’s so much pressure on discretionary spending, so much pressure for every dollar,” Sain said. “People are under pressure more today than ever.”
Rising fuel costs prompted several airlines, including Atlanta-based Delta, to announce they are cutting the number of flights to Orlando. About 6,900 seats per day will be cut by this fall, but local leaders are hopeful that won’t be much of a blow.
“We’ll still have more available seats for the fall of ‘08 than we had in actual passengers in the fall of ‘07,” Sain said. “And the vast majority of the cuts are with the small regional jets flying in from smaller markets. Most people in those markets can still drive to a larger city nearby and fly to Orlando.”
But Steve Crant is feeling the pinch at Shell World, a gift shop his family has run for more than two decades.
“We’re down about 15 percent compared to last year,” he said. “And the people who come in are spending less. The average sale used to be about $30 and now I’d say it’s more like $20.”
That story - of vacationers still coming, but cutting back on their activities and spending - is widespread in Orlando.
“We have a lot of repeat customers and a lot of them are saying they are coming for one week instead of two,” said Steve Rutledge, who manages Sunshine Go-Karts, where business has dropped 40 to 50 percent. “One guy from Macon, Ga., said he drove down last year for $60 and this year it cost $160. That $100 has to come out somewhere, so he said they’d do one less day at Disney.”
Through July, Orlando International Airport actually saw a 3.7 percent increase in passenger traffic, boosted by a 23 percent jump in international arrivals. With the dollar weak against foreign currencies, foreign visitors can get more for their money and have helped fill some of the gap created as hard-hit American families have cut back on vacations.
Walt Disney World does not report visitor numbers, but at least one hotelier located near the massive theme park complex said his year was holding up well.
“Our business this year is up over last year,” said Greg Hauenstein, general manager of the Buena Vista Palace. “As we move into the fall things will slow down as they always do, but we aren’t seeing a terrible fall-off.”
While larger resorts with more marketing power may be doing well, smaller operations, especially those catering to the budget-minded traveler, appear to be taking the brunt of the downturn.
“We’re probably 60 percent off,” said John Neal, who works at Central Motel, a small family-owned property in Kissimmee, about five miles from Walt Disney World. “We used to get 40 to 50 percent tourists and now it’s about 10 percent. I heard on the news a lot of restaurants around here may close. Right now everything is staying afloat, but just barely.”
Things weren’t helped this year when Tropical Storm Fay drenched Orlando for several days.
“Normally the summer stays busy through August,” said Loubna Nioubi, manager of Jungle Falls Gift Shop. “This year it slowed down starting August first. Then the storm hit and a lot of people changed their tickets and went home early.”
Travel agents in the Atlanta area report that interest in Orlando may actually be up this year, possibly because families are forgoing more expensive destinations like Europe and the Caribbean.
“I can almost say Orlando hasn’t turned down because it’s an alternative that’s drive-able,” said Laurie Sadler, Vacations Manager at Sprayberry Travel in Marietta, Ga. “Disney and Universal are still a good value, and we are already starting to see bookings for Spring Break and next summer.”