Tourism & Cruises

Fourth of July ushers in summer travel season in South Florida

As the extra-long Fourth of July weekend approaches, South Florida is preparing for its other busy tourist season.

Sure, the snowbirds have flocked back north to more temperate climes and the moneyed Art Basel crowds won’t return for months. But despite economic or political instability in their home countries, visitors from Southern Europe and South America flock to Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the summer to shop and hit the beach.

Thursday’s holiday, of course, is an all-American celebration — and hotels in South Florida are expecting the promise of waterfront fireworks and all-day barbecues to make for a busy long weekend.

Even though some resorts locally say they expect to be fully booked, a national and state forecast from AAA calls for slightly fewer travelers over the holiday period from Wednesday to Sunday.

Nationwide, the group expects some 40.8 million Americans to travel 50 miles or more from home, down less than 1 percent from 41.1 million last year. In Florida, the prediction is for just over 2 million travelers, a drop of less than 10,000 from 2012.

According to AAA, that drop is likely due to a shorter holiday period, since the Fourth falls on a Thursday rather than a Wednesday. Those who do travel should expect slightly higher gas prices than last year, as well as more expensive plane tickets, hotel rooms and car rental fare over the holiday weekend.

Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA — The Auto Club Group, said the anticipated small dip in Independence Day travel isn’t representative of the larger summer picture, with surveys showing more Floridians planning trips this summer than last.

“I think what it really is is that people are taking their vacations at the non-peak times,” Brady said. “People are still looking to save money.”

Despite the national and state trends, Miami-Dade hotels surveyed by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau expect about 75 percent occupancy for the holiday, compared to 70 percent last year.

Turnberry Isle Miami in Aventura, which has a full weekend of family activities and fireworks over the golf courses Thursday night, is sold out Thursday and Friday night, said sales and marketing director Kevin Rosa.

“Families are making it a four-day weekend,” he said.

In Broward, beachfront hotels are expecting in-state travel.

“I think what they’re doing is taking their weekend ahead of the weekend so they can be at the beach,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That’s just the kind of business we can use.”

Grossman said the summer is shaping up to be strong thanks to business from drive markets, sports events and large family reunions.

“As long as we can keep summer gas prices below $4, I think we’re going to have an exciting summer,” she said. International traffic makes up about 20 percent of visitors in Broward, and Grossman said many of those will be Brazilians, Venezuelans and Colombians hitting Sawgrass Mills for back-to-school and holiday shopping.

“We would love for them to see the beach,” she said. “They may never get to do it.”

For five of the last six years, July has been the fourth busiest month of the year for hotels in Miami Beach, according to data from Smith Travel Research. (It came in No. 3 in 2011.) County-wide, summer visitor crowds increased 15 percent between 2009 and 2012.

“The seasonality of tourism is definitely something in the past,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, though rates remain low in the hot, humid months. The bureau’s marketing in the summer focuses on value — think restaurant and spa deals — and on eye-catching stunts, such as the recent “It’s So Miami Taxi Stand” in New York City.

In late June, the bureau sent exotic cars into the streets of Manhattan to pick up New Yorkers for a short spin, urging passengers to share photos on social media.

The campaign was meant to drum up summer business in the New York market, but statistics from the bureau show that more international tourists than domestic visit during the third quarter of the year.

July brings South Americans, especially Brazilians, who are fleeing winter, and August tends to be full of Italians and French who are getting away during national holidays in their countries.

Those trends are reflected in the sightseeing bus business, said Julia Conway, general manager for Big Bus Tours Miami. While cruise line passengers, mostly domestic visitors, tend to take trips on the double-decker buses in the morning, afternoons in July bring Latin American and European crowds.

“For the Latin American market, they’re escaping their winter and they’re here for our beaches and to shop,” Conway said. “I’d like to say that they’re here to do our tour and see the sights, but I’d be lying. They’re here to get away from cold weather and to shop. What we’ve done is connect the dots so they can do all those things.”

Fabio Cardozo, a 28-year-old public school teacher from Parnaiba in northeastern Brazil, spent Friday afternoon riding on one of the company’s buses exploring Miami Beach, Little Havana and downtown Miami with dozens of other teachers.

He and his fellow educators, about 50 in all, were sent by the government in Brazil to improve their English as part of a program with Florida International University. The teachers study constantly, Cardozo said, but Friday’s excursion counted as cultural enrichment.

“Tomorrow we are going to the Seaquarium,” he said. “Next week, we plan to go to Sawgrass on our free time.”

This was Cardozo’s first trip outside Brazil, and he said some of his friends back home were jealous of his six-week stay in Miami.

“It’s very famous in Brazil,” he said. “It’s a paradise of shopping.”

At the recently renovated and rebranded James Royal Palm hotel in Miami Beach, general manager Patrick Hatton has studied the trends and tweaked offerings to maximize business.

Expecting families from Brazil this month, the hotel is boosting its offerings for kids at the “Little James Kids Club.” For European crowds, Hatton said, the menus will be tweaked to make sure breakfast, for example, has more dried meats and cheeses and the coffee bar has the right offerings.

“The pool and beach will just be packed,” he said.

For locals, the hotel has extended a happy hour from 5-7 p.m. to 4-11 p.m. daily through Labor Day on the new Florida Cookery patio, with cocktails half off, a light bites menu and free valet parking.

On a warm Friday night late last month, the hotel threw a party for guests and locals to celebrate the first day of summer and introduce the new patio area of the restaurant. Free wine and beer flowed at the bar and food offerings were plentiful: ceviche in a shot glass, fish dip, grilled shrimp.

Miami Beach residents Kareame Palmer and Misha Harris, both 37, read about the event on a food blog and made a night of it, hanging out on the patio and vowing to return. Both longtime owners of condos at the former Roney Palace, they moved to the city — and met — a couple years ago after visiting the city over the last several years separately.

“I like the summer because it’s not as crowded, the water’s warm, it’s just more relaxed,” said Harris, who works in real estate. “It’s not the crazy energy of the season.”

Said Palmer, a longtime fan of summers in Miami: “The summers here are the new winters.”