MANATEE -- More Floridians will pack their bags this year for a trip to the Turkey Day table than 2011, giving the economy a modest boost on a holiday generally considered the dawn of Southwest Florida's winter tourism season.
More than 2.2 million Floridians will travel at least 50 miles between Nov. 21 and Nov. 25 to celebrate Thanksgiving -- a tame 0.6 percent increase for what's historically the busiest travel holiday on the calendar, according to projections by AAA Auto Club South.
The kicker: those travellers will spend on average 10 percent less than a year ago, opening their wallets to the tune of $498 to fill up on turkey, apple pie and cranberry sauce.
"There's still a lot of general concern for the economy, especially the fiscal cliff," AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said. "So people are travelling closer to home, and they're spending less."
As the distance of those journeys is projected to decrease -- sliding 16.7 percent from last year when travelers logged an average of 706 miles -- auto travel remains the preferred mode of transportation this Thanks
Just more than 2 million Floridians will hit the highway next week for a Thanksgiving road trip, compared to just 154,246 flyers and 45,042 who plan to either seek bus or train, according to AAA.
Unlike big summer travel holidays, Thanksgiving is all about family, so consumers tend to stay with loved ones instead of hoteliers and don't eat out much -- trimming the overall economic impact to the state, Brady said.
She attributes the spending decline this year mostly to the shorter travel plans, with gas and airfare accommodating for most of the projected visitor expenditures.
In all, AAA projects 43.6 million Americans will take a trip of 50 miles or more away from home for Thanksgiving. This represents a 0.7 percent increase from the 43.3 million people who traveled last year.
The area's winter tourism tends to ramp up following Thanksgiving.
"That starts the pilgrimage down here -- it really does," said Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "I do think we'll have a good season. There's so much pent up demand. There's not a lot of good news out there -- the one thing people can do is get away from it."
Many area resorts already are fully booked for the long weekend, which can become a vital jump start for season.
David Teitelbaum, who operates four resorts on Anna Maria Island, said sales this November are up 15 percent from a year ago, with Thanksgiving weekend booked solid from northerners hoping to spend the holiday on the beach.
"We have no complaints," Teitelbaum said. "We are looking good going forward."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman